Arsenio Rodriguez


Arsenio Rodriguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music

David F. Garcia (2006)

Temple University Press

David F. García, an ethnomusicologist and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina (read about him here), has produced not only the first major text in English about Arsenio Rodríguez, but also the first book in any language that considers this giant of Latin music from a scholarly perspective.

In this 210 page text Arsenio’s life is examined on a number of levels – part biography, part sociological examination of attitudes related to time and place, part musicological analysis, and more. Awarded a Certificate of Merit for Best Research in Recorded Folk, Ethnic, or World Music from the Association for Recorded Sound in 2007, this book is based on considerable research of the available literature as well as drawing from many hours of interview, including time spent in conversation with Raul Trevieso, who was Arsenio’s last living sibling.

A few photographs and musical notations are included as is a full discography of Arsenio’s work, extensive notes, bibliography and an index.

Why you might buy it:
The book is not something that has been thrown together and you can tell that the writer has really immersed himself in the subject – resulting in a confidently produced text based upon a wide variety of research methods. It’s the only book on this great man available in English and the inclusion of a full discography is in itself reason to purchase a copy. Arsenio’s career across Cuba, NYC and Los Angeles is given equal/relevant space and you will learn many things you perhaps had not known before – there are some very interesting items contained in the notes which you should read as you go along to get the most out of the book. You get a strong sense of Arsenio as a man of principle, someone to be admired not only for the considerable musical heritage he created but for his strength of character too – the adage “great musician, shit human being” (which I’m paraphrasing here from something Desi Arnaz once said) certainly does not apply in this case. It is readily available and not particularly expensive – if you have any interest in the development of Latin music/salsa then you simply must get yourself a copy.

Why you might leave it:
You believe that words like “scholarly” and “academic” mean that this will be a dry and difficult read – it’s certainly not dry and if you have a decent standard of English it’s not overly taxing on your brain (but you may have to look up some words and phrases from time to time – you know, like maybe ‘learn stuff’). The amount or research involved here could well have yielded a bigger book – it would have been nice to see, perhaps, some of the interview transcripts included to add extra layers of interest for some readers.


1. “I Was Born of Africa”: Black Consciousness and Cubanidad
2. Negro y Macho: Arsenio Rodríguez’s Conjunto and Son Montuno Style
3. Who’s Who in Mambo?
4. Remembering the Past with El Ciego Maravilloso
5. Salsa and Arsenio Rodríguez’s Legacy
Conclusion: Remembering Arsenio Rodríguez / Remembering Son Montuno

Selected extracts (from):

Chapter One: I was born of Africa

From 1926 through the 1930’s Arsenio and his family lived in several working-class repartos (wards) in Marianao. The family first settled in Los Hornos, in the barrio of Quemados, where the fifteen year old Arsenio did not have to go far to meet famous black son musicians. For example, the family lived several blocks away from Felipe Neri Cabrera, the singer and maraca player with the popular black son group Sexteto Habanero. This son group had returned from New York City, where they made twelve recordings for RCA Victor in September 1926, about one month before the hurricane. Raul remembers that he, Arsenio, and Kiki regularly observed Habanero’s rehearsals from the window of Cabrera’s home. In one occasion Kiki told the musicians that Arsenio played tres and wanted to learn more. The musicians obliged his request and invited Arsenio to play. After, Raul remembers the following: “When we left, Arsenio told us, ‘my brothers, I’m going to play better than [Carlos Godinez].’ My other brother asked him ‘why do you say that?’ [Arsenio] ‘You know why? Because he plays only two chords and more chords can be played on the tres. I’m going to play more than he does’” (Raul Travesio interview June 19, 1996). Evidently, Arsenio’s interest in breaking the mold took root early in life.

Chapter Two: Negro y Macho

Throughout the 1940’s Arsenio’s son montuno style was never referred to as mambo, even though central principles and procedures of his style, such as playing in contratiempo (against the beat), also defined the mambo as performed by charangas and Cuban big bands. Instead, Cuban musicians and dancers of all colors distinguished his style for its “blackness” and “masculinity”, differentiating his estilo negro y macho or black and masculine style from the estilo blanco y hembra or “white” and “feminine” styles of other Cuban groups, such as Comjunto Casino and La Sonora Matancera. The fact that La Sonora Matancera’s members were black and mulatto shows us that the terms “negro” and “blanco” were deployed to identify not the musicians’ actual color but in part the racial and class background of the groups primary audience in Havana. In addition these racialized and gendered characterizations were deployed because of the meanings they carried in the context of traditional Afro-Cuban sacred and secular musical performance. Arsenio’s Son Montuno style not only contributed to the flowering of Cuban popular music beginning in the early 1940s but also affected the racialization of son styles that ultimately contradicted the sons status as a symbol of Cuban mestizaje and national identity.

Chapter Three: Who’s who in mambo?

During Arsenio’s first visit to New York in 1947, the name mambo had not yet emerged as a broadly recognised category of Latin music and dance. Between 1948 and 1949, however, mambo began to appear in the entertainment pages of La Presna, New York’s local Spanish language newspaper, in which the term formed part of the names of bands; in advertisements that were initially labelled as “mambo-bolero”, “mambo-son” and “mambo-guaracha”; as part of musicians titles, such as Cuban Kiko Mendive or “El Rey del Mambo”, who was accompanied by Damaso Perez Prado at the Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx in 1948; in advertisements for dance lessons; and in advertisements of Manhattan dance spots, including the Cuban Casino and the Palladium, the latter of which became known as the home or cradle of the mambo by late 1949. On his return in 1950 Arsenio was surprised, as he later recounted to Bohemia, to find that “[New York City] was filled with ‘mambo kings’, ‘emperors of the mambo’, ‘rajas of the mambo’. And I said to myself, ‘then, I’m just a soldier of the mambo’” (Cubillas, 1952).

Chapter Four: Remembering the Past with El Ciego Maravilloso

As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, Arsenio’s financial situation in the final years of his life has been the subject of much speculation, characterized mostly by allegations of poverty. The circumstances surrounding his burial in New York undoubtedly contributed to this perception. In stressing that Anadina’s solicitation for money to bury Arsenio’s body was unnecessary because he had already paid for his grave in Los Angeles, Raul, I believe, was trying to correct the impression that Arsenio left no money for his wife to bury him. Clearly, Arsenio was not wealthy, but as Mario Bauza noted, “the royalties from his compositions was enough for him to live well, and it’s a myth that he died poor and forgotten, a total lie” (Padura Fuentes 1997, pp 41-42). Indeed, dozens of his songs were being recorded by salsa musicians alone in New York. Another popular myth involves Arsenio’s grave site. According to many of Arsenio’s fans, his grave site has been “abandoned”. Although his grave site is unmarked, lacking a headstone, Ferncliff Cemetery is in fact a prestigious and extremely well kept cemetery where other notables such as Malcolm X, Thelonious Monk, and Paul Robeson are buried.

Chapter Five: Salsa and Arsenio Rodríguez’s Legacy

In 1960 Johnny Pacheco recorded his first LP, titled Pacheco y su charanga (Alegre LPA 801), which immediately became commercially successful, selling over 100,000 copies (Carp 1998, p.16). A year later Ray Barretto recorded his first LP, titled Pachanga with Barretto (Riverside 7506). Both LPs became two of the earliest and most popular pachanga recordings recorded in New York. Of the twenty-one recordings in both LPs, seventeen are pachangas. First, like many of Arsenio’s son montunos dating from the early 1940s, all of these are based on a continuous harmonic cycle of two or four bars. Second, the arrangement schemes are markedly similar, consisting of an introduction, montuno, solo, an optional cierre, and the diablo. In particular, the alternating scheme between a refrain and verse, which follows the introductions in Pacheco and Barretto’s pachangas (with the exception of the latter’s “Pachanga Suavecito” [Soft Pachanga]), is especially reminiscent of Arsenio’s customary son montuno arrangement scheme. As arranger Alfredo Valdes Jr. recalled, “The arrangements I wrote for Ray Barretto were very ‘Arsenio’. [They] were all ‘Arsenio’ ideas. Rather, [they] had that approach” (Valdes interview 1999). Another disciple of Arsenio, pianist and arranger Hector Rivera, arranged “Pachanga Suavecito” (Soft Pachanga), which incorporates some of the son montuno’s core stylistic elements. They include a slow tempo (110s), a melodic baseline in contratiempo, and, most noticeably, the customary piano cue (i.e. an arpeggiated dominant-seventh chord) followed by a four bar syncopated cierre, which practically breaks all sense of meter or pulse. Instead of following the cierre with the diablo finale, however, a violin solo follows.


With the transnational repertories of salsa and world music ever expanding, it is more important than ever for ethnomusicologists and others to conduct historical research with those who experienced the music of pioneering artists as musicians, dancers and listeners in their original historical and social settings. Their recollections of the experiences are perhaps the closest or perhaps the only thing we have left in learning about how the music felt in performing with and dancing to these historically important groups and musicians. They also represent windows into the history of local race, class, age and political relations and how these informed the performance and reception of the music.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Deborah Pacini (2007)
“Arsenio Rodríguez was responsible for crucial developments in Latin music’s most important musical genres, son montuno, mambo and salsa, but his accomplishments have never received the attention they deserve. This fascinating book explores Arsenio’s place in the trajectory of Cuban music from pre-revolutionary Cuba to New York, Los Angeles and beyond, giving Arsenio his due not only as an extraordinarily creative musician but as a life-long participant in anti-racist struggles. It is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship, giving equal attention to the historical context and musicological structures that gave Arsenio’s music its power and meaning.”

Jazz & Improvised Politics blog by JB Spins (2006)
An oddity in the Blue Note catalog, Sabu (Martinez)’s Palo Congo LP is a strictly Afro-Cuban percussion-oriented session, without any jazz soloists, but featuring Arsenio Rodríguez on tres (a Cuban six-string guitar) and vocals. While jazz listeners might know Rodríguez best from this session, his influence on Latin music, particularly the development of mambo and salsa styles is profound, as García explains in Arsenio Rodríguez.

Blinded as a young boy as the result of an accident, Arsenio Rodríguez would find music to be an avenue of advancement for a Cuban of African descent. Rodriguez developed a wide following for his son montuno style with its dense poly-rhythms. He attained significant popularity in Cuba before the revolution through his live performances on Radio Mil Diez, a station then owned by the Communist Party. Although he was pressured to join the party, Rodríguez refused, protesting: “No, no, no. I don’t belong to any party. I play for both the conservatives and the liberals. And if they’d pay me I’d play in a cemetery. My [politics] is music.” (p. 28) However, García argues his continuing aversion to politics may have dampened enthusiasm for Rodríguez among the post-revolutionary Cuban immigrants in America.

Throughout his American career Rodríguez had repeated dust-ups with the musician’s union. One instance in 1953 involved defiance of Local 802 prohibitions against foreign orchestras playing for dancing, as opposed to strictly listening pleasure (which was grudgingly allowed), when the visiting Conjunto Casino played the Tropicana Club in the South Bronx. According to García: “Audience members, however, did dance, and after Conjunto Casino’s set was finished Arsenio’s musicians began to take the stage when [union enforcer] Ugarte ordered all union members off the stage.” Rodríguez was quoted as responding: “He, as a Cuban, will play even if they terminated his membership.” (p. 29) He was fined for his defiance of Ugarte’s authority. In his final days, union authority would actually prevent the recording of his last LP when “recording officials from Los Angeles’ Musician’s Union (Local 47) canceled the session because Arsenio had not paid his union dues.” (p. 115) He would pass away a few weeks later.

When emphasizing Rodríguez’s African ancestry García makes much of “revisionist” memories of Cuba on the part of political exiles, suggesting there was in fact much racial inequality before the revolution. Surely, Rodríguez did face discrimination, most likely acerbated by his blindness. However, García has little to say about the effects of Castro’s regime, although he does mention late in the book the Communists’ decision to ban or “discontinue black social clubs after 1959.” (p. 145) Such clubs would later be celebrated in the Buena Vista Social Club film and CDs.

While Rodríguez never attained the commercial success in America he had in Cuba, his influence on the mambo of Tito Puente and Perez Prado, as well as the salsa of Larry Harlow and Ray Barretto is clear. His style would inform their playing and his tunes would become part of their repertoire.

García’s book is strongest when approaching the subject from an ethnomusicologist’s perspective. His analysis of Rodríguez’s son montuno style will help refocus critical attention on a neglected figure in Afro-Cuban musical history. As a biographer, García is less successful. For instance, only passing mention is made of Rodríguez’s conversation from Santeria, becoming a Jehovah’s Witness—surely an incident of great importance in Rodríguez’s life. If lacking a biographer’s flare for drama, García is at least a convincing advocate, building an effective case for his subject’s place in music history by Jim Lepore (2006)
What a treasure to have an English-language resource that shines light on this important figure, a man who was, and is, simultaneously revered and neglected. The source of many of salsa’s most enduring innovations, Arsenio Rodriguez’ contributions spanned the mambo era and found resonance when this music re-emerged later as “salsa.” Garcia does a fine job of illuminating this for the reader. It should not surprise Americans, as Garcia points out, that these innovations were inspired by Arsenio’s profound understanding of Cuba’s African traditions. Most refreshing, however, is finding an author who also understands the importance of Arsenio’s music as “music for dance.” Garcia engages his reader on this point and drives home the critical relationship between Arsenio’s music and the dancers, and the importance of this rapport in energizing and sustaining his innovations. Arsenio emerges in this biography as a critical voice in dispelling an entrenched notion that music for dancing cannot be serious music (I am reminded of Ned Sublette’s “dancing is an intense listening state,” from Cuba and its Music.) And Garcia makes this statement forcefully.

I also applaud Garcia’s dissection of this musician/dancer connection–one that is enlivened by interviews with musicians and dancers. He missteps, however, in his definition of the son montuno “basic step.” What he describes is more likely a “variation”–one that reflects the inventive styling and footwork of dancers responding to the push and pull of Arsenio’s “clave feel.” Son montuno was indeed danced using timing that Cubans call “contratiempo.” Garcia’s analysis of that timing, however, is simply too idiosyncratic.

Overall, this book is substantive. It presents English-language readers with another important resource in moving the discussion of Afro-Cuban music and dance (including salsa), and its West African roots, forward.


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