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LatinoBuzz: Cuban Music Doc: Arsenio Rodriguez

LatinoBuzz: Cuban Music Doc: Arsenio Rodriguez

One of Cuban’s greatest
musicians, Arsenio Rodriguez, known as
The Marvelous Blind Man (El Ciego Maravilloso) is now the subject of a
documentary by renown doc filmmaker 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.

Born in Cuba on August 31, 1911,
Ignacio Arsenio Travieso Scull died in Los Angeles December 31, 1970 and is
buried in New York City where 100 years after his birth, a grave marker was installed
for this icon of Cuban music, funded by Larry Harlow and Jose Raphael Mendez (Ralph Mendez) in a drive, coordinated by Henry Madina along with a group of fans and musicians. Larry, Ralph and Henry also succeeded in getting a street in the Bronx named after him.

Blinded as a young boy by a mule
or horse’s kick, Arsenio became a famous musician and band leader on the island. His music was
revolutionary in the 1930s, 40s and 50s for its use of Afro-Cuban rhythm with
the melodic lead by the “tres”, a three-course, six-string string instrument
that he played masterfully.

Rolando discusses his own motivation to make this film
with On
Cuba, an online magazine in English
about….what else?  About Cuba of course.

Rodriguez singing his most famous song, La vida es un sueno (Life is A Dream):

“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 played 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 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.”

Arsenio’s legend was in the Southland in the outdoor sculpture at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA). 

Umberto Capiro, an L.A.-based architect and
aficionado of Cuban music and dance, wrote in Living
Out Loud, Los Angeles
about it:

The audience was treated to two sublime sets
featuring the music of the iconic Afro-Cuban composer, musician and band leader
Arsenio Rodriguez.

MoLAA was filled to
capacity to hear an All-Star orchestra “The Arsenio Rodriguez Project” made up
of musicians from New York and Los Angeles. The line up included the legendary
Afro-Cuban trumpet player Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros who played in
Arsenio’s band, Tres Master-Nelson Gonzalez (Grupo Folklórico Y Experimental
Nuevayorquino), Jose Mangual Jr. (Spanish Harlem Orchestra) who were
accompanied by local master José Caridad Perico Hernández with Iris Cepeda on
vocals and local musicians Jorge Pérez, Alberto Salas, Alberto Tamayo, Santiago
Santioste and Luis Alberto Ortega.

One of Arsenio Rodriguez’s chief innovations was his interpretation of the “son
montuno” Cuban music genre which took center stage at the evening’s concert.

… an avalanche of
sound… buried the nearby dance floor and those seated behind for two
sets. Since Arsenio Rodriguez was a tres player, it is no coincidence
that this
Cuban instrument was highlighted in several numbers with the virtuosity
Nelson Gonzalez on “Sueltala” & “Mami me gustó”. Other songs
included in the sets were “Fuego en el 23″ and the iconic bolero “La
Vida es un Sueño”. Several celebrities were spotted enjoying the
evening, including Buena Vista’s Ry Cooder and actor Jimmy Smits.

The Arsenio Rodriguez
Project is the brainchild of Guido Herrera, an Angelino via Peru who has been a
Latin music promoter and DJ at the KXLU 89.9FM show “Alma Del Barrio” for many
years. We must thank Guido for this magical evening of Cuban music under the
stars in Long Beach, California.

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