Musical Travel And the Blind Imagination: Arsenio Rodríguez’s Dialogue with the Diaspora

Were it not for Arsenio Rodríguez’ talent, compositional genius and determination to enrich the world that so frequently wronged him he may have passed through life unnamed and unnoticed by posterity just another hapless poor black blind man in Cuba or another disembodied U.S. immigrant statistic. While travel can often cause feelings of dislocation or rootless existence, Arsenio carried home wherever he went or his music took him. As many immigrants, caught between multiple cultures ask themselves, Arsenio wondered if allegiance to the Cuban culture that discriminated against him was worth it, or if home could ever be found in the American melting pot of identity politics, capitalism and social iniquity. Arsenio’s life could have been made much easier had he been able to obtain the Braille education and mobility training many of today’s blind can fortunately take for granted. Father of the son montuno, inventor of the diablo, the guaguancó de conjunto and quindembo, Arsenio’s deep roots proved resilient yet flexible enough to dialogue with different cultural values and surroundings. Although Arsenio could not send money home to Cuba for a returning migrant mansion, his music kept alive geographical and spiritual connections between New York, Cuba and Africa, serving as the ultimate cultural remittance. “El Ciego Maravilloso’s” legacy involves a rare blend of encyclopedic musical knowledge, cultural grounding, curiosity, adventure and even bravery. Where less persistent musicians opted for obscurity or retirement, claiming incompatibility with public tastes or economically unfair disadvantages, Arsenio persevered. From his rural birthplace to the streets of New York and Los Angeles, Arsenio traveled across time and space with pitches, timbres and rhythms. When he died on December 30, 1970, Arsenio must have felt, according to his beliefs, that he would make the ultimate journey to a paradise, not full of sandy beaches or endless riches, but rather of sincere, unconditional acceptance. It is up to subsequent generations to travel back in time, meet Arsenio through his recordings, imagine his Cuba and New York as he imagined other worlds, stand at his crossroads and let his music take them to problematic and intensely pleasurable places.