While musicians like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Machito were starting on the path to superstardom in dance halls like the Hunts Point Palace and the Tropicana in the 1950s and ’60s, a Cuban bandleader many consider the godfather of salsa quietly made his home in Longwood.
Although “El Ciego Maravilloso,” or “The Blind Marvel,” as Arsenio Rodriguez was otherwise known, continued playing and composing from the time he immigrated in the early 1950s until his death in 1970, he did so to considerably less fanfare than many of the musicians who mamboed in his footsteps.
Now, though, he’s beginning to get some of the acclaim that is his due.
A group of salsa aficionados has convinced the city to honor Rodriguez by naming the intersection at Intervale Ave. and Dawson St. for him. The corner is near one of several Longwood addresses where he lived. The tribute, expected to take place in the fall, will commemorate his contributions to Latin music and honor his seminal place in the evolution of salsa in the South Bronx.
In addition, Rodriguez’s music will be featured at the 12th annual International Salsa Congress between Aug. 29th and Sept. 2nd at the New York Hilton Hotel, and at El Teatro Miranda, at 52 Park in Longwood on Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. Rodriguez’s 77-year-old daughter will come from Cuba so the group can present commemorative plaques to her and to Rodriguez’s 60-year-old niece, a lifelong Longwood resident.
Born in a rural section of Cuba in 1911, the descendant of slaves who had been stolen from the Congo, Rodriguez grew up hearing his elders sing songs from their African past. Those sounds never left him.
Rodriguez added elements of the African music he had grown up with to the sound of the small ensembles that played in pre-revolutionary Cuba in the 1930s and ’40s. In the bands he led, he amped up the rhythms and the energy level several notches on that jaunty but often monochromatic music, introducing conga drums and multiple trumpets, and eventually replacing the guitar with the piano, lending the music an exciting new feel.
He also contributed his own virtuosity on the tres—a guitar with three sets of three strings, differently tuned than a standard guitar.
Beyond his innovations as a bandleader and his prowess as a tresero and conguero, many consider Rodriguez one of Latin music’s greatest composers, for adding a level of sophistication to a style hip Latinos often poo-pooed as primitive country music.
“El Ciego,” who was blinded when he was kicked by a horse as a boy, came to the US hoping to find an American surgeon who could restore his sight–in vain. He later settled in Longwood, where many other Cuban immigrants lived at the time, side-by-side with Latinos of other nationalities.
Over the years, Rodriguez moved around to Kelly Street and Tinton and Prospect avenues. Occasionally he played at some of the big-name clubs, but mostly he performed at smaller venues like the Club Cubano Inter-Americano on Prospect Avenue. But his artistry made him a pioneer.
Grammy-winning percussionist Bobby Sanabria says Rodriguez “holds the same position in Cuban music that Louis Armstrong has in jazz.”
“The DNA of Arsenio permeates everything,” says Sanabria, who admitted that he once dismissed the music as “corny” while growing up in the salsa-crazed Mott Haven of the 1960s. Then he heard a DJ playing Rodriguez’s records “religiously” on a Latin radio station, and he was hooked.
“Without Arsenio, you have no Tito Puente, you have no Machito, you don’t even have Carlos Santana,” he said.
Rodriguez wrote the song “La Gente Del Bronx,” while living in Longwood in the ’50s, praising his new neighbors.
Now, 42 years after his death, his neighbors are returning the compliment.