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Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
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Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows
of Latin Popular Music
By David F. Garcia
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006
274 pages: $25.95 [paper]
Halbert Barton
, Long Island University
As a young boy in Cuba, Arsenio Rodríguez, was kicked in the head and blinded by
a donkey. Later, he was dubbed The Marvelous Blind Man (El Ciego Maravilloso),
and became known for his aggressive musical style. David F. Garcia claims that this
theme shaped Arsenio’s approach to music: “dale cocimiento” (p. 135), he would say
to his musicians, meaning “let’s kick some ass” (p. 50).
Despite his visual impairment it was not uncommon for Arsenio to get into
fistfights. His brother Kiki once saved him from a potentially fatal beating and spent
several years in jail for stabbing to death his assailant. The perenially pugnacious
Arsenio continued to fight back through his music, especially against the whitewashing
[ 300 ]
of Afrocuban musical heritage. He also fought against the profound disrespect he
encountered daily as a working-class Black man in a musical industry dominated by
(“white men” in Congolese) and their anointed mambo kings (i.e. pretenders
to the throne).
“Abre kuto guiri mambo” (p. 50) he would say in his Congo-Spanish creole:
open your ears and listen to what I’m going to tell you. “No Spanish.
African!” (p.22). Creator of the modern
ensemble, founder of mambo,
player, brilliant composer and arranger, Rodríguez had an enormous
impact on 20th-century popular music. By the same token, he was stubborn as a
mule, refusing to take a few simple steps that would have given him wider appeal.
Bucking the emerging 1960s trend towards accelerated tempos, as in the hands
of Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta, he forcefully stayed put in a laid-back sound
that gave free rein to inspired improvisations from musicians as well as dancers.
While he always had a core of devoted fans, especially among Afro-Cuban dancers
and other Afro-Latin
in New York who fully appreciated his genius,
including Larry “El Judio Maravilloso” Harlow, he never achieved the fame of his
musical progeny. Sadly, he died in relative poverty and obscurity, far from home
in California, an archetype of neglect. His central role in the musical innovations
of mambo had been largely passed over, and his stylistic developments in Cuban
music percolated into Buena Vista Social Club fame (over 7 million discs sold)
twenty-five years after his death. However, the music that he pioneered had
become a world favorite without him getting his full due. Garcia provides the
evidence with which to interrogate this neglect and finally give him the respect he
so richly deserves. While Arsenio is mentioned frequently in histories of Latin pop,
his contributions have never been studied in depth. Garcia shows how the story of
Arsenio underlies the foundation of not only salsa, but also the early 21st-century
rage for traditional Cuban son. In doing so, Garcia gives the man the book-length
treatment he deserves.
In the Introduction, Garcia states that his main purpose is to address
“the conflict in his volatile professional career and his music’s long-term
significance to Cuban and Latin popular music history” (p.3).
Chapter 1, “I Was Born of Africa”, situates Arsenio’s music within an African
diasporic framework, explicitly Congolese. The lyrics to his musical compositions
were full of references to his Congolese heritage, including his spiritual connections
to Palo Monte, a Congo-based religion founded by enslaved Africans in 19th century
Cuba. Arsenio’s outspokenness was especially mordant in that he consistently
affirmed both his Cuban and African identities, often at the same time.
Chapter 2, “Negro y Macho,” looks closely at how Arsenio’s music embodied a critique
of the whitened and emasculated sound of the so-called mambo kings. By contrast,
Arsenio, the founder of the basic core of mambo and
son montuno
, had a sound that was
considered by his fans to be more black and more masculine. Garcia argues that he
achieves this sound from the use of
, playing against the beat. The chapter
describes the masterful tones that run through all his compositions and performances.
The chapter also unravels the expectations of performer and audience, where the musical
sense of “home” is Black African, working-class, and Cuban.
Chapter 3, “Who’s Who in Mambo?” looks at Arsenio’s career in relation to
the mambo kings of the pop culture imagination: Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez,
Pérez Prado, and Machito. Garcia shows how mambo, Latin jazz, and salsa are all
inconceivable without Arsenio. Others have laid claim to the authorship of mambo
[ 301 ]
(Cachao, et al.), but Garcia finds that Arsenio had developed the core elements.
Chapter 4, “Remembering the Past.
..,” goes deeper into the details of Arsenio’s
life history as recorded in interviews. Garcia pays special attention to the last ten
years of his life, tracing his journeys from New York, Chicago, Curazao, and Puerto
Rico to his final stop in Los Angeles. Garcia shows how Arsenio’s core audience
during the 1960s was a more mature audience, more motivated by longing, as
opposed to the youthful excitement that accompanied the emerging restless and
rowdy sounds of
, boogaloo, and salsa. Arsenio’s music represented a sort
of comfort food for an audience steeped in the bittersweet experience of migration.
Chapter 5, “Salsa.
..,” looks at Arsenio’s music in relation to the development
of salsa in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and the chill of the Cold War.
Garcia looks closely at many reasons why Arsenio was unable to fully cash in on his
innovations. Racial discrimination by producers appears to have been a factor, even
as younger salsa musicians recorded his music. The new music sometimes paid tribute
to Arsenio even as the new arrangements selectively poached from his repertoire.
The Conclusion is particularly valuable to those who want to understand the
connections between Arsenio and the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon.
The role of the Netherlands Antilles, particularly Curazao, is shown to have an
especially critical role. In Curazao, the love for Arsenio’s music never completely
retreated into nostalgia, having been sustained by migrant workers traveling back from
Cuba. The influential Cuban group Sierra Maestra, who led the global rediscovery of
son in the 1990s, had incorporated the flavor of Arsenio music and achieved great fame
in Curazao, which became a testing ground for receiving approval from hard-core fans.
Garcia’s tightly organized and concise book is based on over a hundred
interviews, and makes use of over a dozen interview transcriptions from other
sources. His most valuable source appears to have been Arsenio’s brother,
Raúl Travieso, to whom Garcia dedicates the book. Travieso’s eyewitness
accounts give Garcia’s commentaries depth and breadth to his analyses.
One of the strengths of Garcia’s book is that he provides a window not just
into the life of Arsenio, but also into the contexts in which he lived. How is it
possible that his life could have ended so unceremoniously? Many musicians may
see him as one of the giants of twentieth-century music, and he has received a few
posthumous tributes in this spirit, but his musical innovations did not translate
directly into success as a performer. Yet the commercial boom of the Buena Vista
Social Club albums, which have Arsenio written all over them (and not just in the
compositions), shows the enduring appeal of his characteristic style and tone.
earthy, vibrant, achingly rich, and transcendent.
Garcia approaches the life of this individual in the context of racial and ethnic
dynamics in Cuba and the United States. Neither strictly biographical (where
cultural context recedes) nor macro-sociological (where individuals are muted),
the book succeeds in a “history of the person” approach whereby individuals,
whether ordinary or extraordinary, are agents and witnesses of large scale
sociopolitical events and circumstances such as the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War,
Latin American migration to the United States, and the U.S. civil rights movement.
Garcia argues persuasively against the tendency to pigeonhole music according
to national, or even regional, classification. Nor is he merely celebrating Arsenio’s
music as part of a universal language. By detailing the scope and trajectory of Arsenio’s
life, he shows how rhizomes (horizontal, synchronic connections) can matter as much as
taproots (vertical, diachronic connections). What his transnational perspective brings to
[ 302 ]
the study of Arsenio’s life and work is a heightened attention to the interaction
between different local groups and institutions across and within national borders.
New York City, in particular, is a favored site for transnational (not to mention
translocal, transethnic, etc.) analysis, full of localities that may be temporary,
performative, in transit. The exigencies of life as a musician dictate, to a great extent,
how one must travel. Arsenio had to “ramble,” just like his musical kin to the north and west.
Garcia also emphasizes things that tend to get left out of biographies of famous
musicians—the integral roles of dance, spirituality (Palo Monte in this case), and the
transnational flows of culture that sustain particular musical traditions (e.g., the Cuba/
Curazao connection). Many will find that the book provokes further interest in the
role of Palo Monte in Cuban music. The material is tantalizing, as not much has been
written about this topic in English.
Whereas dance is traditionally thought as optional or external to the music,
in Arsenio’s mambo the musicians are locked into the dancer’s footwork by the
emphasis on contratiempo. Generally, it is not obvious how important dance is to
son montuno, but Garcia makes a strong argument about a subtle phenomenon that
would escape the untrained eye and ear. His analysis of how the dance steps interlock
with the off-beat phrasing of the music is especially noteworthy.
Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music
is a
terrific biography that painstakingly traces Arsenio’s profound contributions to the
growth of Latin popular music. The book was awarded a 2007 Certificate of Merit for
Best Research in Recorded Folk, Ethnic, or World Music from the Association for
Recorded Sound. Published in the Temple University series “Studies in Latin American
and Caribbean Music,” it combines strong ethnomusicology, musical analysis and
notation, and great contextualization of people, places, and sounds. While the writing
is a bit too dry to attract many readers beyond his core audience, the book is deeply
informative and most appropriate for serious researchers. Some of the most interesting
material (for general readers) appears tacked on at the end of the book and in the
endnotes, but this also rewards those who follow through to the end.
While many salsa lovers have at least heard of Arsenio Rodríguez, they will learn a lot
from this book. I would expect many readers with strong interests in Latin/Caribbean
music, the African/Congolese diaspora, Cuban studies, and U.S. Latino studies to find
this book a good and rewarding read.
Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory
Directed by James Chankin and Leigh Savidge
Produced by James Chankin
Santa Monica, CA: Xenon Pictures, 2008
71 minutes; 19.98 [dvd]
Marisol LeBrón
, New York University
Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory
is the first feature-length
documentary to trace the genre’s evolution from its “
” years in Puerto
Rico to its current international success. The film is in many ways an unapologetic
rags-to-riches story that attempts to explain how reggaeton overcame incredible
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