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.
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.