Apr 08

Changing the Game. Salsa Legend, Joe Arroyo.

If you’re speaking in sporting circles, very rarely – probably once in the history of a particular sport – an athlete comes along that forces the rules of a game to be changed. In my two favourite sports; there was basketball’s Wilt Chamberlain, and cricket’s Donald Bradman. If you’re talking about another kind of sport, namely Latin American music, one name springs to mind.

Joe Arroyo.

This man was a true game changer. The rules of music were changed forever because of the existence of this ebullient, hard-living kid from Cartagena. After carnival-crazy Barranquilla adopted him as their favourite son by lauding him with the “Golden Conga” eight times, it was realised that a new award would have to be created just to give other artists a chance of winning something at carnival time. Thus, the “Super Golden Conga” was created. Why was he such a big deal?


This Cartagena kid had his work cut out for him. Growing up as one of 39 full-and-half-siblings, singing on chicken buses for a living, it has passed into legend that a bishop ran into him (somehow!) at the tender age of eight, performing in a brothel, and convinced him to joing the cathedral’s choir instead. At 12, he was also singing for a band in a hotel. At 15, lead singer of his own band. At 17, singing with “Fruko and his Hardmen,” the biggest Colombian band of Salsa’s seventies resurgence. A decade later would see him as front man for his own world-beating group, Joe Arroyo and the Truth, touring the world, and changing the game. In 2011, while a drama about his intensely-lived life was airing on national TV; and on the morning where he was awarded the Latin Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award; he would be pronounced dead of massive organ failure in his beloved Barranquilla, where he would indeed stay forever – just like a song.

Although an early death was on the cards for this superstar – he spent decades struggling with drug addictions – it must have been hard to really believe. Barranquilla radio stations had declared him dead after a long stay in hospital in 1983, and he’d pulled through that somehow. It really did seem that a higher power was protecting the life of this troubled, devout singer. This made the blow a heavy one for his legions of fans to bear. Barranquilla was swamped with mourners. His birth-town of Cartegena was shut down for two days. The president himself mourned his loss; as did musical luminaries such as Shakira and Juanes.


Why? Because the legacy he has left behind is truly awe-inspiring, game-changing. His music was so revolutionary – he said he always chose at least three or four different musical styles in any given song – that a new style, Joesón was named after him. The hundreds of songs he recorded are as rich as the musical heritages he was born into. Ever a passionate rebel, his music, such as the hauntingly prophetic “En Barranquilla Me Quedo (I’ll stay in Barranquilla)” and the stirring anti-racism anthem “Rebelión” itself changed the way music is lived all around the world. Joe Arroyo,  game-changer of the highest order, we here at See Colombia Travel offer you this Monday salute. Thank you.



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