My discovery of Arsenio Rodríguez

As a child, I would hear the elderly members of my family talk about him. Years later, when I made my first music documentary, Jazz de Cuba, I included him consciously in my imagination after I heard a delicious anecdote from the celebrated musician Chucho Valdés, when he referred somewhat ironically to certain journalists who held him responsible, instead of Arsenio, for composing “El guayo de Catalina.”

Ignacio Arsenio Travieso Scull, better known as Arsenio Rodrí-guez, was born in Güira de Macurijes, a little town in Matanzas province, on Aug. 30, 1911.

He was known as the “The Wonderful Blind Man” (“El Ciego Maravilloso”) because of his uncommon talent for playing the tres, and he has gone down in history as one of the most relevant Cuban musicians of all time. Not just because of the dozens of songs that he wrote in the bolero, guaracha and son genres, but also because he structurally innovated the so-called conjunto, or ensemble, by adding the tumbadora, or conga drum. After Arsenio, nobody has been able to do it differently.

Many exponents of this genre view him as the “Father of Salsa.” I think that is not just because of his tireless zeal for innovation, but also the legacy of songs that have brought international fame to a number of bands, such as La Sonora Ponceña and the Fania All Stars.

Another good friend who is now getting up there in his years told me that when Arsenio played at La Tropical, that sanctuary of Cuban dance music, people preferred to watch, and dance later to his recorded music. The reason was that, despite his blindness, Arsenio very skillfully led his band and play the tres at the same time, making for an incredible show that over the years ended up carving out his legend.

A number of stories have sprung up about his blindness. Some say it happened when he was a child and was kicked by a horse; others say it was a rare genetic condition that runs in his family, causing some of his relatives to have retinitis pigmentosa.

As the years passed, creative fate led me to do a project in which Cuban musicians would pay tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez; during this process, we would film a documentary, organize a concert, and, at the same time, the whole production would be inspired by an album designed by producer, composer and critic Tony Pinelli, who had the original idea for the whole project.

In researching Arsenio’s life, I ran into his only daughter, Regla María Travieso. She still lives in Havana, in one of its outlying neighborhoods, surrounded by her saints and her memories. Something began to flower in her home, and it wasn’t just faded photos, including of the silent cemetery in New York where the musician was laid to rest. Songs, complete texts, and a whole string of anecdotes both funny and sad helped give shape to the life of a man whose days ended in Los Angeles, on Dec. 30, 1970.

In the late 1940s, Arsenio went to New York in an attempt to find a cure for his blindness. However, the diagnosis of the famous Dr. Castro-Viejo caused him to stop and meditate on the irreversible nature of his condition. Out of that experience came the lyrics of one of the most beautiful songs in Cuban music: “La vida es un sueño” (“Life is a dream).”

Forty years later, we were able to take Regla María to Arsenio’s grave, as part of the experience of making the film. I thought that at that moment, Regla’s spirit would give her father a Christian burial. A dozen Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians surrounded her, all holding hands and singing one of Arsenio’s songs. Perhaps it was an unmistakable sign of the musical ties between our islands, and between them and the Americas.

* By: Rolando Almirante (Havana, 1967). Filmmaker, producer and professor. With more than 20 documentaries under his belt, in Havana he recently premiered the documentary La Leyenda de Arsenio (The Arsenio Legend), with the record label EGREM as executive producer.

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