Arsenio Rodríguez was born on August 31, 1911 in Güira de Macurijes, Matanzas, Cuba. He was the third of fifteen children, fourteen boys and one girl, to Bonifacio Travieso, a veteran of the Cuban War of Independence who worked as a farmer, and Dorotea Rodríguez Scull.
He played the tres, as well as the tumbadora, and he specialized in son, rumba and other Afro-Cuban music styles. Despite being blind since the age of seven after being kicked in the head by a horse, Rodríguez quickly managed to become one of Cuba’s foremost treseros. His first hit, “Bruca maniguá” was recorded by the famous Orquesta Casino de la Playa in June 1937. For the following two years, Rodríguez worked as composer and guest guitarist for the Casino de la Playa, before forming his conjunto in 1940, one of the first of its kind. It featured three singers (playing claves, maracas and guitar), two trumpets, tres, piano, bass, tumbadora and bongo. Of all the conjuntos, Arsenio Rodríguez’s became the most successful and critically acclaimed one during the 1940s. His popularity earned him the nickname El Ciego Maravilloso (The Marvellous Blind Man). The first single by his conjunto was “El pirulero no vuelve más”, a pregón which tried to capitalize on the success of “Se va el caramelero”.
In 1947, Rodríguez went to New York for the first time. There, he hoped to get cured of his blindness but eye specialist Ramón Castroviejo advised him that his optic nerves had been completely destroyed. This experience led him to compose the bolero “La vida es un sueño” (Life is a dream). He returned to New York in 1948 and 1950 before establishing himself in the city in 1952. He played with influential artists such as Chano Pozo, Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá. On March 18, 1952, Rodríguez made his final recordings with his band for RCA Victor in Cuba. He finally left Havana on March 22, 1952, having handed the direction of the conjunto to trumpeter Félix Chappottín. Chappottín and the other remaining members, including pianist Lilí Martínez and singer Miguelito Cuní, formed Conjunto Chappottín.
Rodríguez contributed to the development of the son montuno, the basic template of modern-day salsa. He claimed to be the true creator of the mambo and was important as well as a prolific composer who wrote nearly two hundred songs.
In 1970, Rodríguez moved to Los Angeles, where he died of pneumonia on December 30, 1970.