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Arsenio Rodriguez, Los Exitos and A Todos Los Barrios CDs

Review: Choice Cuts

by Diane Gordon

—Arsenio Rodriguez:
Los Exitos De Arsenio Rodriguez
A Todos Los Barrios

There may be many mambo kings, but there is only one Arsenio Rodriguez. And if you don’t believe me, ask Tito Puente, who calls him “The King of Clave.” Rodriguez’s role in the development of Cuban music is so important that it’s impossible to imagine modern Latin music without him. A prolific singer, composer and band leader, Rodriguez was also a master of the tres, the cuban guitar made up of three groups of doubled or tripled strings.

Born in 1911 in the little town of Guira de Macurgie, in the Cuban province of Matanzas, Rodriguez was one of eighteen siblings of a farm family. He lost his sight as a child when he was kicked by a mule. After establishing himself as one of Cuba’s most popular musicians in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he moved to New York City in 1950, hoping to have an operation that would restore his sight. The operation was a failure, but he remained in the United States for the last twenty years of his life. In 1970, Rodriguez died in obscurity and poverty at the age of 59, never knowing the enormous impact of his musical genius on future generation of Latin musicians.

Among the many musical contributions of Arsenio Rodriguez was the founding of the influential Cuban conjunto style popular in the late ‘30s, which he did by fleshing out the traditional six or seven piece ensemble by adding a horn section, congas and cowbell. Virtually every modern salsa band plays the music of Arsenio Rodriguez, but now you can hear the real thing on two releases that present music from two periods in his life.

A Todos Los Barrios, which was recorded in Cuba, is a collection of early works of Arsenio Rodriguez. Similar to the remastered Robert Johnson recordings, which CBS released on CDs in 1990, the sound quality is marginal, but who cares? It’s a real collectors item for Latin music afficionados, which showcases the maestro’s burning tres solos and soulful voice in the classic conjunto setting.

While A Todos Los Barrios is a roots recording, suitable for Latin music archives, Los Exitos De Arsenio Rodriguez contains a generous 24 cuts of Rodriguez at his best. Recorded in New York in 1963 and 1966, this Ansonia recording shows why he remains the standard bearer of the Latin big band sound. Full of the hard-driving nervous energy that characterizes urban life, the CD is nothing short of a masterpiece.

It’s a shame that these two recordings are flawed in a similar way. With the exception of the Ansonia recording’s few paragraphs about Rodriguez, good liner notes are sorely missing. Considering his stature as a seminal figure of modern Latin music, he deserves a lot more.

[Editor’s note: By the time you read this we will be graced with the addition of a new re-issue on CD called Legendary Sessions 1947-53 featuring Chano Pozo, Arsenio Rodriguez, and Machito - BP]

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