100 Years of Arsenio Rodriguez
August 31 1911 – December 31, 2011
By Aurora Flores
Can you imagine a salsa band without a conga drum in the line-up? Conga drums are seen everywhere today from classical music stages to rock concerts. However, there was a time in Cuba when congas with their connection to Africa, were considered taboo and outlawed by authorities. Arsenio Rodriguez changed that permanently adding congas to the percussion section while a line of searing trumpets play in four part harmonies. Arsenio defined an authentic black macho “conjunto” instrumentation and “son montuno” style that cleared the path for mambo and salsa.
Born Ignacio Arsenio Travieso Scull in Matanzas, Cuba, Arsenio was a prolific composer, percussionist, bassist and “tresero,” mastering the six stringed Cuban guitar that made his name as bandleader. His innovations in creating an authentic Afro-Cuban sound based on the musical foundation of his enslaved Congolese ancestors changed the course of dance music, its ripple affects still felt on the dance floor today.
Among the oldest of his fifteen siblings, Arsenio came from a musical family where cousins, uncles, brothers and sisters were attuned to music. Living in the country, Arsenio was kicked in the head by a horse causing blindness in the seven-year old boy. Although his outer world turned dark, the music inside him shone a light on the pioneering path of “El Ciego Maravilloso,” the blind marvel as he was later known.
From trumpeters like Armando “Chocolate” Armenteros, who got his first start with Arsenio to Felix Chappotin whose later “descarga” (improvisational) recordings are cult classics, Arsenio inspired a movement of Black pride and confidence within the very separate white and black Cuban communities that transcended the monochromatic racial borders of degradation imposed by the Cuban government, the last of the Great Antilles to abolish slavery in the Americas.
He composed many of his more than 200 songs during the forties and fifties including “Bruca Manigua”, “Llora Timbero,” “Dame un Cachito pa` huele`”. “Telaraña” and “Ritmo Diablo” many of these coded with double intenders referencing riffs on race, sexuality and politics. His most popular bolero was a dark reflection on life as a much-anticipated 1947 trip to salvage his vision in New York turned into a sad diagnosis of permanent blindness. He penned “La Vida Es Un Sueño” in an ironic vision of life as a dream.
Although scholars continue their debate as to who really created the mambo, Arsenio was clear in his contributions taking from ritual Congolese traditions in developing his particular dance style. While many bands played to primarily white audiences Arsenio played to the blacks and mestizos of Cuba and everywhere.
When a young Rafael Cortijo appeared for the first time in New York’s Palladium in the fifties, it was Arsenio Rodriguez who greeted him. He quickly gifted the Afro-Boricua bandleader with the tune “A Bailar Mi Bomba” an African derived dance genre from Puerto Rico that Arsenio quickly absorbed. Cortijo recorded the tune making it a hit.
While in New York during the 50s and 60s, Arsenio spotted a young black singer in a club. When Santiago Cerón told Arsenio he was classically trained to sing opera but wasn’t sure if he could sing “son” since he was Dominican and not Cuban, an annoyed Arsenio shot back: “You’re black. The Congo is in you. I will teach you to sing son!”
New York in the fifties rocked with the big band mambo orchestras of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez who eclipsed Arsenio’s brand of Afro-Cuban rhythms. Arsenio’s was too black and about twenty years ahead of his time. By the sixties, pachanga and boogaloo were the rage. After having wrestled with the racial tensions of the Cubans in Miami, Arsenio moved to California where, on December 30, 1970 El Ciego Maravilloso died of a stroke in Los Angeles. His body was returned to New York and interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County of New York.
Among Arsenio Rodriguez more than 200 compositions:
1946 Dame un Cachito Pa’ Huelle
1946 Semilla de Caña Brava
1947 Los Dicen Todos: La Vida Es un Sueño
1948 La Vida Es Un Sueño, El Cerro, Tiene la Llave,
1948 Esa China Tiene Coimbre
1948 Tumba Palo Cucuye, Tintorera Ya Llego
1948 Yo No Engaño a Las Nenas, Tocoloro
1949 El Palo Tiene Curey
1951 Labori, Mira Que Soy Chambelon 1952 Pa Que Gocen, Jaguey
1955 La Gente del Bronx, Como Se Goza en El Barrio
1956 Mambo en la Cueva, A Bailar Mi Bomba
1957 Buenavista en Guaguancó
1962 Son Pachanga
1963 La Pachanga
1968 Arsenio Dice
In sharp contrast to his musical and cultural legacy, Arsenio Rodriguez’s final resting place has remained without a grave marker since his burial on January 6, 1971. Rumors of possible family disagreements and politics have condemned Arsenio to eternal sleep with neatly cropped grass covering his remains like a conspiracy concealing his ignominious fate. Hopefully, by calling attention to the present state of affairs, the enigmatic issues regarding the lack of a memorial will eventually be resolved and an appropriate grave marker bearing his name will be erected.
On Saturday August 27, 2011, at Ferncliff Cemetery, located in Hartsdale, Westchester County NY., musicians, fans and enthusiasts of Afro-Cuban music will observe the 100th birthday observance of Arsenio Rodriguez. For more information about his memorial please contact Jose Rafael Mendez, Jr. or Henry Medina, Jr. at (917)-992-4387 /(631) - 273-1832 or at
Aurora Flores is a BMI composer, writer, and bandleader of Zon del Barrio. She can be reached at: