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The Musical Contributions of ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ

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Transcript of The Musical Contributions of ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ


The popularity of Septeto Bellamar, which AR had joined in 1934, enabled him to meet famous musicians like Antonio Arcaño and Miguelito Valdés.

Bruca maniguá was an Afro-son composed by AR in 1937.

It was the first of his songs to be recorded to disc, sung by Miguelito Valdés and the Orquesta Casino de la Playa that year.

The record label called the song a "conga." In fact, it was an afro-son, a son montuno with African motifs.


The song is about the freedom of African slaves and their descendants in Cuba: "Yo soy carabalí, negro de nación; sin la libertad, no pue'o viví." "Carabalí" refers to a Cuban descendant of immigrants from the Calabar region in Nigeria. "Negro de nación" was a common term in Cuba to refer to black slaves.

The song was addressed to the people of the barrio. The words are in "neo-bozal," an African-laced Spanish, spoken only by arriving immigrants. In a 1964 interview, Rodríguez explained that the lyrics were written in the Congolese language of his ancestors. He was trying to perpetuate how his grandfather's generation talked.

The song was more a lament than entertainment -- the last four lines translate as "White man finished off / My heart / So mistreated / They kill the body." The subject (and language) of the song makes it part of the
afrocubanismo movement
which had started in the 1920s to try to preserve Afro-Cuban culture.

Known as "The Marvelous Blind Man" because of his ability with the tres.

Early 1930s: Formed Sexteto Boston - performed his own compositions exclusively.

1937: Arsenio's friend Miguelito Valdés sang "Bruca Manigua," which became AR's first hit.

Early life and 1st success
1940s: Innovate!

In 1940, at age 29, AR created a new formation called
(ensemble) by adding conga, piano and a second (and later third) trumpet. The conjunto transformed the sound of Cuban music.

that AR introduced was a son with a montuno section featuring improvised vocals (soneos) by the lead singer (sonero) over a repeated chorus, with frequent trumpet, tres, and piano solos.

AR, along with bandleader Antonio Arcaño and Pérez Prado, were credited with developing the
during this period.

The conjunto format, son montuno, and mambo are three essential elements of what would later be called

Late 1940s: Went to New York to treat his blindness

In 1953, left Cuba for good with his brother Kiki because of threats against Kiki's life and for the better musician pay in America.

Residents of the Bronx preferred Arsenio's son montuno style to mambo styles popular at the Palladium (a ballroom in Manhattan where Latin dance music was performed).

His music had an impact on MAMBO, then SALSA.
New York
Continued to try new things in the 1960s.

Died in Los Angeles, buried in New York.

Tributes to AR continue by those who appreciate his talent, e.g., The Arsenio Rodriguez Project.

Later Years and Today
The Musical Contributions of ARSENIO RODRÍGUEZ
Garcia, David F.
Arsenio Rodriguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music
. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006. 210 pages.

Garcia, David F. "Contesting that Damned Mambo - Arsenio Rodriguez and the People of El Barrio and the Bronx in the 1950s" (pages 187-198) in
The Afro-Latin Reader - History and Culture in the United States
, Edited by Miriam Jimenez Roman and Juan Flores Duke University Press, Durham and London 2010.

Sheldon, Harvey.
The History of Afro Cuban Latin American Music
. (Published by Harvey Sheldon). 2010. 772 pages. (pp 382-386 covered AR) (Material identical to content at http://www.allmusic.com/artist/arsenio-rodr%C3%ADguez-mn0000600775/biography)

Sublette, Ned.
Cuba and Its Music - From the First Drums to the Mambo
. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2004.





The tres is a guitar with three
double-coursed strings.
And the tres being played a little longer and faster.
This is a short video of a tres being played slowly. The double steel strings make a difference in the sound!
Arsenio Rodríguez was a prolific composer, tresero, percussionist, and bandleader. As a musical experimenter, AR was one of the giants of Cuban music.
The truly moving lyrics in the song can be heard better in this more recent recording:
Rehearsal: "Lo Que Dice Usted"
Performance: Hay fuego en el 23
Why AR's Conjunto was Innovative

AR formed his first conjunto in the early 1940s and performed primarily for the Black working class in Havana, Cuba at that time.

AR was not the first to incorporate the PIANO into the typical Cuban sextet/septet (trumpet, guitar, tres, bongos, bass, maracas and claves). This had already been done by the Sexteto Miquito, the precursor of the Conjunto Casino, back in 1935. He was not the first to call his group a "conjunto" (a word which means "combined").

What was different was the way Arsenio used the piano. The white bands such as the Casino
the tres with the piano so that the piano had to sustain riffs, the way the piano in salsa music does today. Arsenio
the tres which freed up the piano to play fills and solos.

Including the conga (aka tumbadora, the largest-sized conga) was revolutionary because it was previously taboo because of its African origin.

The TUMBADORA added drive and depth and the two-trumpet sound was exhilarating. The conjunto format completely eclipsed the charanga (which used violins and flutes instead of horns and was mainly associated with danzón at this time) until the mid-1950s.

Another innovation was the band's adaptation of the guaguancó to the conjunto format. It was traditionally performed by voices and percussion. AR combined the guaguancó with the son, further "Afro-Cubanizing" it.


In the 1930s, the standard format for playing son was the SEPTETO (or Septet),
consisting of
1. one trumpet
2. guitar (second voice)
3. tres
4. bongo
5. bass
6. maracas (another second voice)
7. claves (lead singer)
with two or more bandmembers singing.

General trend was a relatively subdued sound compared to its African roots.

About 1940, AR added
conga drum
second (and later, third) trumpet.

With these additional instruments,
AR was able to get the contrasting timbres
that he wanted.

The power of trumpet section
and conga's deep tone revolutionized the son.
In 1953, AR, disillusioned by the lack of opportunity in Cuba (where musicians were paid poorly), moved to New York.

He continued to compose while living in the Bronx. Songs like "La Gente del Bronx" and "Como Se Goza En El Barrio" (on the first album recorded by the new conjunto he organized in New York) reflected his gift for writing about his everyday surroundings.

Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto de Estrellas performed at the Palladium for the first time in 1950. For the next two years, it performed at venues that featured mambo dancing. He and his band also played at neighorhood dances in the Bronx as he had done in Havana. While he worked constantly, he never became a star attraction.

AR's relaxed son montuno style proved incompatible with mambo dancers' preference for the faster-paced styles of other bands. The opinion of Mario Bauzá, a contemporary Cuban jazz musician, was that AR played with a tempo that was hard for a non-Cuban to follow. A Cuban dancer could feel the black counter-time, which was very slow. AR didn't want to lighten up his rhythm and that's why he never had the success he deserved in the US, "because his music was never well understood."

By 1957, with the mambo and cha-cha becoming less popular, there was greater competition among the bands for fewer gigs in Manhattan mambo-dominated dance halls. AR's conjunto played almost entirely in El Barrio and the Bronx. His popularity didn't match what it was in Cuba.

AR continued to innovate in the US. He experimented with different instrumentations for the rest of his career, adding flute, timbales, and saxophones to the conjunto. His 1957 album,
Sabroso and Caliente
, included timbales and flute-horns interplay.

In 1963, AR recorded his Quindembo/AfroMagic album on which he wrote and sang all the tracks. "Quindembo" is a Congolese word meaning a mixture of many things, and the album blended jazz with son and Afro-Cuban religious elements. In this same year, he paradoxically also issued a pachanga (mixture of son montuno and merengue) album in the middle of a pachanga craze.

In his final years, he experimented with a style that he called "swing son."

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Club Cubano hired younger groups more regularly than AR's group, to attract younger dancers to its dances. While he did not sustain a lucrative performance career in the 1960s, his conjunto recorded eight LPs between 1958 and 1968. AR's songs from the 1940s and 1950s were rerecorded by early salsa musicians during this time.

By 1969, AR had moved to Los Angeles and performed intermittently with a conjunto. He died in 1970.

Pre-SALSA in Cuba: A Case for AR Having Contributed to Salsa

In the late 1930s, AR replaced the guitar with the piano in the son conjunto. Since that time, the
has been a staple of Cuban popular music. Piano guajeos are one of the most recognizable elements of
AR popularized the Cuban
, the trumpet-driven rhythm group that later became the basic format of the
AR's innovations changed Latin
music and paved the way for what would eventually become known as salsa.
, many of which became standards of later
repertoires, emphasized Afro-Cuban, particularly Congolese, subjects.
There are similarities between son montuno and
and other
Born in 1911. His grandfather came to Cuba from Congo as a slave.

At age 15, AR met Victor Feliciano, a carpenter who also made musical instruments.

Feliciano taught him how to play guitar, bass, maracas, and bongos.

He also taught him how to play the tres, the instrument with which AR is most identified.
Here is Miguelito Valdés singing "Bruca Maniguá":
He interrupts the song to ask, "You've having run, right?" It's fun to listen to online, many years later!
DIABLO Described

Arsenio's trumpet player Benetín Bustillo (who joined the band in 1943) started copying Antonio Arcaño's flute riffs on the trumpet. These riffs inspired Arsenio to create the son montuno rhythm that he named "el diablo".

The "diablo" section of AR's son montuno was the section with layered guajeos (guajeo: Cuban ostinato* melody).
* An ostinato is a repeated musical phrase, as in Ravel's

He developed the
guajeo style, with interlocking contrapuntal parts, during 1934-38. It was common for treseros to play a series of guajeo variations during their solos. AR came up with the idea of layering these variations on top of each other.

The diablo is a possible predecessor or prototype for the mambo, which is contrapuntal (interdependent harmonically but independent rhythmically).
AR's SON MONTUNO: Different from past son montunos

AR created a musical form that changed the way Cuban music was played.

The term "son montuno" already existed, meaning son from the deep country.

AR's son montuno was a specific way of using his instruments in the son. The traditional son played by sexto/septeto had a repeated section called the "montuno." AR's son montuno had a more elaborate "montuno" section: it had a DIABLO horn section, with a phrase repeating over and over during the montuno, to ratchet up the excitement. AR named it "diablo" and would shout "Diablo!" when it was going on.

When the tension was wound up good and tight, there would be a break. These breaks were simple but unpredictable. After a tense silence, the montuno would slam back in. The chorus would sing something different, either half of what they were singing before, called "picao," or another choral part entirely. These fake endings could be deceivingly final, before the rhythm came back.
Pre-SALSA: Piano Guajeo in a Son Montuno

In AR's "Como traigo la yuca***", also known as "Dile a Catalina," the piano melody is the same as the vocal melody early on. In the second half of the song, however, the piano uses contrapuntal material (i.e., deviates from the main melody of the song) and uses a cross-rhythm (three ascending notes)

(***The song isn't meant to be taken literally. "Tell Catalina to get a grater because the yuca is ripe" is a double entendre.)
2-3 son montuno piano guajeo "Como traigo la yuca" (1943)
After one has lived twenty disappointments
what's one more?
After you know the action of life
you should not mourn.

We must realize that everything is a lie
that nothing is true.
We must live the happy moment
we must enjoy what we can enjoy
because after taking account of everything
life is a dream and everything will pass.

. . .
everything is just eternal suffering
and the world is made of unhappiness.
age 15: moved to Havana where he played in local groups (1926)
age 17 (1928): formed septeto
age 23 (1934): joined another septeto,
Pre-SALSA in New York

AR was especially influential among the first generation (1960s) of salsa musicians, many of whom spent their formative years (1950s) in El Barrio and the Bronx performing with Arsenio's conjunto or listening to its recordings.

Throughout the 1950s, AR lived in El Barrio with his Puerto-Rican wife Emma. He regularly stayed with his brother's family in the Bronx. Latin musicians who led the popularization of the pachanga, boogaloo, and salsa in the 1960s also lived in the Bronx. Interviewed 30-40 years later, they said that they learned by observing AR's conjunto and listening to its records.

Willie Colon said, "…he was our principal teacher. From him we took the feeling of Cuban music, of the orthodox son…"

AR's music was important to salsa music history in these concrete ways:
Salsa musicians recorded AR's compositions.
Salsa musicians have composed and recorded original son montunos and conjunto-style guaguancós.
The son montuno's contratiempo, sonic power/density, climactic energy, and solos are mirrored in salsa dura.
This is an example of a SEPTETO:
It is the Septeto Nacionál playing a son. The group, also known as Septeto Nacionál de Ignacio Piñeiro, started as a sexteto. It expanded the instrumentation for the son in the era before Arsenio Rodríguez by adding the trumpet to percussion, vocals, and strings.
AR's conjuntos performed Cuban dance music like son, son montuno, guaracha, and guaguancó. "Son montuno" refers
to the style of AR's conjunto.

Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto was the name of the band that he formed that was active in Cuba during 1940-1947. His group worked at places like a cabaret and dance academy, but also a new venue that admitted blacks, the Jardines de La Tropical, a beer garden. AR's band playing there started a new era, the golden age of Cuban dance music.

Here is what the conjunto sounded like (see how the conga drum and extra trumpets heighten the power of the music).
This medley was recorded in New York City (not Cuba) in 1953, so it was AR's New York conjunto.
Popular in Immigrant Community

The Cuban and Puerto Rican communities in 1950s New York embraced AR's slower-paced son montuno style and his traditional Cuban-based repertory. AR's conjunto's music resonated with Latin immigrants who felt nostalgia for their native countries. His son montuno style was seen as traditional, while the mambo bands were seen as modern.

The lyrics in AR's song "Como se goza en El Barrio" include "Los que viven in downtown vienen a gozar al Barrio." The implication was that the dancing at dance halls like the Plaza in El Barrio had more integrity than at the Palladium.

In the early 1940s, AR had shaped his son montuno style according to the tastes of the black working class people in Havana. His audience in El Barrio and the Bronx was similar. They preferred social dancing at a non-frenetic pace. Even in Cuba, the other conjuntos had faster styles and performed mostly for White middle/upper classes. In Havana, AR's style was known as the "Black" style.


AR also revolutionized the son-montuno by

consistent accentuation of set part of clave pattern
having his bass patterns accent the offbeats (contratiempo [against the beat], syncopation) as well as the melody of the sung refrains
interweaving (of bongos in a question-and-answer, i.e., call and response, relationship with the tumbadora and bass, as opposed to noticeable individual playing).
most importantly, correlation of accented attacks in the music with important steps and bodily movements in the dance style of Cuban son (e.g., consistent accentuation by the sung refrain and accompanying piano and tres in "No toque el guao" of two particular offbeats that coincide with two syncopated steps in the son's footwork). This gave the son montuno a unique groove that helped dancers to feel the music and dance to it in contratiempo.

These aspects are most readily apparent in the finale of his arrangements, when the conjunto parts come together to create repeating cycles of simple (yet syncopated), interwoven, and exciting rhythmic patterns.

AR thus distinguished himself from his contemporaries, who did not take any of these radical approaches.
Was Kiki the reason for adding the tumbadora?

The conga had been prohibited at various times in its history, so playing conga in a dance band was daring at the time.

The story is that AR introduced the conga in 1942 for musical
practical reasons. Because of his blindness. AR paid his brother Kiki (aka Quique or Kike) to help him get around. It was expensive. The only instrument Kiki knew how to play was the conga, so AR put him on the payroll, playing conga.

Playing the tumbadora in public before the early 1940s would've been illegal.

Again, AR was not the first to use congas in a son group, but he used it in all his gigs at dance academies, social clubs, and La Tropical. Jazz bands were using the conga for added color, while AR made it "the heartbeat of his band."

The conga slammed out the 2 and the 4 of the measure more strongly, making AR's rhythm heavier. The congas, bass, tres, and piano all hit hard on the 4, dramatically anticipating the next chord together.

You can hear how the conga sounds by clicking on Play at the bottom of this page:

CAMPANA (Cowbell)

AR popularized the use of the "campana" (cowbell), which became a standard instrument in the conjunto. It changed the role of the bongosero, who used to be the star of the group.

At the start of the montuno section, the bongosero would switch from the bongo to the campana, whacking it with a stick in a 1-2-3-4 pattern. It wasn't AR's invention, as the bongosero switch to a campana had been used in a sexteto as early as 1930. But AR made it a standard move.

In the parts of Africa where black Cubans came from, sacred drum ensembles included an iron instrument. The campana that AR added evoked the Abakuá bell. The campana connected the piano more to the rhythm, because its bell-like clang fused with the piano's sound.

This song from 1943 was one of the first to use the campana.

The piano drops into bell-like notes to lock in with the cowbell:
HAVANA versus the BRONX: Different Yet the Same

The formation of AR's style in HAVANA in the early 1940s was directly tied to the development of black working-class social clubs with social events organized around the performance of music and dance.

AR had a "black style" to his Cuban conjunto that was a marker of racial and class differences (Other Cuban groups like La Sonora Matancera had a "white style"-- its musicians were black, but its primary audience was white.)

In NEW YORK, first-generation Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants considered AR's style típico and auténtico, meaning that it caused them to be nostalgic for their home countries and resistant to more modern music styles like the mambo.

In both places, AR's music seems to have represented an alternative to the musical styles associated with dominant classes and ethnic groups.

If one accepts that the meaning of music lies not in its content but in its performance (i.e., the sensory experience of playing and dancing), AR's music was particularly special, because many of those who performed in his conjunto or danced to his music described his montuno style as having a unique
, that one had to f
eel the style with the body
to understand it.
Kiki is on the lower right in this photo (c. 1950), playing the tumbadora.
MAMBO in Cuba - A Case for AR contributing to, but not creating Mambo

AR, Jesus López, and Cachao López of Arcaño's charanga are
credited for inventing the mambo. What likely happened is the brothers were influenced by AR's use of the diablo, introduced it into their charanga, and applied it to their composition "Mambo" in 1938.

AR, whose father was Congolese, once said, "The word mambo is African, of the Congo dialect. One singer says to the other, "abre cuto guiri mambo," which means "open your ear and listen to what I'm going to tell you.''

AR claimed that the mambo (the big band style that exploded in 1949) came out of his diablo, the repeating figures that the trumpets in his band played. He said that he was already doing it in the late 1930s. But AR could not have created Dámaso Pérez Prado's big-band mambo arrangements, because AR was not an arranger.

AR maintained that the final section of his arrangements and his son montuno style were the "original" and "authentic" mambo style. In a magazine interview, AR said that Pérez Prado mixed the mambo with American music "…and he did us irreparable harm with it. I'll never forgive him for that or myself for creating that damned mambo."

AR wasn't making a distinction between an "inauthentic" and "authentic" mambo style. He was expressing a resistance against (and others' ambivalence towards) the mass-popularized mambo styles of Prado and others.

But he did
play the style that the world came to know as mambo in late 1940s. Mambo is an up-tempo, horn-driven dance music. The first big band to play this music was Julio Cueva's band in 1944.
ROOTS of the Son Montuno Feel: THROWBACK TO CONGO

AR and his conjunto made the first major changes to the son since Ignacio Piñeiro.
It's true that AR's style was new.

But ironically, what was innovative about his conjunto and son montuno style was AR and his musicians applying the principles and procedures of Afro-Cuban traditional music to formulate new ways of performing Cuban music.

The changes were actually reminiscent of Congolese music ensembles.

For example, the montuno in general is basically
call and response
, with the call being, for example, trumpet improvisations (or some other pattern) and the response being a refrain sung by the 1st/2nd voices (or something else). Then there's a solo, a break, then the climactic diablo finale.

The piano was reminiscent of what would've been a part for the thumb piano in the Congo. The trumpets also echoed the multiple trumpets (made of wood, elephant tusk, or cattle horns) used in Congo ensembles.

This is not surprising, since the underlying feel of Cuban music is Congo. It has influenced Afro-Cuban dance like the creolized contradanza, rumba, son, and conga (dance). And AR's grandfather was Congolese. What seemed new was actually old.

Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto 1940-1947

This is the cover for the album by AR's Havana conjunto

The band made their first recording in 1940. Their first big hit came in 1942 with "Como traiga la yuca," called "Dile a Catalina" by the public.
AR's Versatility as a Composer

His songs ran the gamut of subjects.

Many of his compositions such as
Tu Reloj
(a subversion of a traditional Spanish décima) and
Dame Un Cachito Pa' Huele
made use of spicy double entendres to sing sexually-explicit lyrics in a seemingly innocent fashion.

Other songs celebrate the black barrios in Havana, e.g.,
Juventud Amaliana
, dedicated to the barrio of Amalia.

Cangrejo Fue A Estudiar
is a comic fable of a braggart crab who goes to school where all his proud boasts are punctured.

AR composed about 200 songs in his lifetime.
After getting the bad news that a corneal transplant wouldn't
restore his sight from an eye doctor in New York in 1947, AR wrote "La Vida Es Un Sueño," which has become AR's most famous bolero.

The dark and heartbreaking lyrics include:
In June 2013, The Arsenio Rodríguez Project, a group of NY and LA musicians, performed at a concert playing tribute to AR.

This is a video of Afro-Cuban trumpet player Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros -- who played in AR's band -- being interviewed, followed by the orchestra rehearsing the hit, "Sueltala."
Por supuesto, we have to end with my favorite song!
AR's piano guajeos were innovative in that their binary rhythm reflected the clave beat. For example, the piano guajeo for "Dame un cachito pa' huele" (1946) is separate from the song's melody. The piano guajeo pattern marks the clave by accenting the backbeat.
They are helping to keep AR's music alive.
Full transcript