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LatinoBuzz: Cuban Music Doc: Arsenio Rodriguez

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by Sydney Levine
July 17, 2013 3:30 PM
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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 just until recently a grave marker was installed of this icon of Cuban music, funded by a group of fans and musicians.

Blinded as a young boy by a mule or horse’s kick, Arsenio became a famous musician and band leader in the island and was known as El Ciego Maravilloso (The Marvelous Blind Man). 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?  Cuba of course.

Arsenio 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 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.

Last weekend 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 packed sets. Since Arsenio Rodriguez was a tres player, it is no coincidence that this Cuban instrument was highlighted in several numbers with the virtuosity of 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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