Arsenio Rodríguez Biographical Notes
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According to the birth registry, as corrected by him, Arsenio Rodríguez was born on August 31, 1939 in Guira de Macurijes, a small town in the province of Matanzas, Cuba. At age seven, his vision suffered as the result of a kick from a horse. Rodríguez was from a very poor family originally from Congo, and was raised in the nearby town of Guines where he learned to play the "tres" (similar to a guitar with 3 strings but not played like a guitar) and bass, maracas, congas and bongos.
By the 1930s he was working in Havana as a tres player (tresero) in several sextets. He had started to compose as early as 1928 and his first big opportunity as a composer came when in 1937 Casino de la Playa recorded Bruca Manigüá with Miguelito Valdes. This was followed by Ben acá Tomá, and in 1938: Yo son macuá, Fufuñando, Yo soy gangá y Se va el caramelero. In this last one he stars with a tres solo part. Possibly these contacts with the Casino de la Playa gave Arsenio the idea of adding a second trumpet and piano to the typical septet to make his band.
In 1949, Arsenio made his debut as Arsenio Rodríguez y su conjunto, making his first two recordings, El pirulero no vuelve más - capitalizing on the success of Se va el caramelero - and Y Yo tá namorá, (soon re-recorded by Casino de la Playa), thus the historic beginning of one of the major musical recording groups of inmense musical impact and historical importance that Cuba has ever known.
Arsenio had it all. As a composer with a deep-seated foundation of conga culture, he dominated all aspects of its music, language, dances and traditions. He thus introduced into his afros, sones, guaguancós and other rythmic themes, the wonderful world of Afro-Cuban music. At the same time his was a very sensitive romantic spirit, able to create beautiful, original boleros, such as the incredibly famous La vida es un sueño.
An extraordinary performer of the tres, his virtuosity transformed this instrument, which was incredibly clumsy to play at high speeds, into something capable of converting pianistic montunos into "tres"-istic montunos, which coupled with his sensitive ear, as any director of a musical group must possess, made it possible for him to offer something new and original to his public.
He realized that the musical sextet as a group, usually consisting of black or mestizo musicians, was being displaced by so-called jazz bands composed mostly by white musicians. He also realized that an orchestra composed only of black musicians was likely to generate strong opposition to succeed. Whereas an intermediate-sized group -- smaller than an orchestra but greater than the sextet - first adding a second trumpet and a piano, and later a third trumpet and drums (tumbadora), would be the best path to take. And since talent among black musicians was more than enough, he had the luxury to choose the best musicians and singers for his group.
Soon Arsenio's Conjunto became popular on radio programs, in parties and dances and in 1942 all of Cuba's jukeboxes played nonstop Como traigo la yuca, which the public renamed Dile a Catalina (the chorus). This was followed by another rapturous success, that of Oye como dice, by Chappottín (composer) and based on a popular motif -- the game of bolita or charade which although illegal, was more popular than the official lottery game.
It went like this -- bets went from 1 to 36, which were the 36 numbers of Charada China (literally, Chinese charade) a simple numerological system of dream interpretation used for the divination of numbers to play the bolita. Each number corresponded to an animal, person or object, and so common that, along with the alphabet Cuban children learned that 1= horse, 2= butterfly, 3= sailor , 4= cats and so on. The number for the day converted into a verse was the clue for gamers to bet on. The phrase was repeated all through the day prefaced by "Oye como dice", literally "listen how it goes" and that is how the song was inspired by the game. Chappotín uses this scenario dedicating a verse to each of the Cuban provinces.
Bibliography: Cristóbal Díaz Ayala, notas al CD Cubanacán 1703; Max Salazar: "Arsenio Rodríguez, life was like a dream", Latin Beat, marzo 1994. Penguin, obra citada, pág.1002-1003. Y sobre todo David García, "Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music" Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2006