Joe Arroyo, Colombian Salsa Great, Dead at 55
Joe Arroyo, Colombian Salsa Great, Dead at 55

Joe Arroyo, the salsa star and composer whose piercing, high tenor and groundbreaking songs -- including "La Noche" -- made him a groundbreaking force in Colombian salsa, and one of its major ambassadors abroad, has died. He was 55 years old.

Arroyo, real name Alvaro José Arroyo, died the morning of July 26 at Asuncion Hospital in Barranquilla, where he had been hospitalized for the last month for various ailments, including kidney failure and heart problems.

"It's a great loss for music and Colombia," wrote Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos on Twitter.

Arroyo died in the midst of a resurgence of his music and career.

His life is currently the subject of Colombia's highest-rated primetime soap opera, "El Joe, La Leyenda," which has been airing week-nights on channel RCN since May. The soap's popularity hinges on Arroyo's music and a colorful life -- replete with heavy drug use, a plethora of women and major brushes with death -- that defied reality and spawned two biographies. The soap, in turn, led to an announced tour and a reissue of much of Arroyo's hefty catalog -- more than 150 recorded songs -- much of it released on Colombian indie Discos Fuentes. In a twist, the morning of his death, the Latin Academy had just announced it would honor him with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Latin Grammys in November.

Born in the historic coastal city of Cartagena, Colombia, Arroyo rose to prominence during the Colombian salsa explosion of the 1970s after being discovered by Julio Ernesto Estrada, leader of seminal salsa group Fruko y Sus Tesos. Arroyo made a name for himself as the lead singer for Fruko, popularizing tracks that would become classics, including "Manyoma" and "El Confundido."

Video: Joe Arroyo's Salsa Classic, "La Noche"

Arroyo would later form his own band, La Verdad, and record tracks like the much-covered "La Noche" and "Rebelion" which tells the story of an enslaved African couple that rebels against its Spanish owner.

"Rebelion" was chosen to be the theme of "El Joe," because "he's an artist that's sung to liberty, to dance, to inequality, and he's a rebel," soap director Herney Luna told Billboard last month.

While Arroyo's life had been the subject of much fascination, actually taking it to screen was a risk.

"El Joe" may be the first Latin American soap opera whose main characters are black and whose entire plot line revolves heavily around black culture in a Latin American country. And although "El Joe" was done with Arroyo's blessing, it's not sanitized, and indeed, says Luna, Arroyo insisted that his struggles with drugs remain in the story.

"The project is an homage to him and to Latin music," says Luna, noting that Arroyo's rag to riches story is universal.

"It's been successful because people want to hear the music and have fun, but they've also identified with his story," he says.

Arroyo was born in a Cartagena slum and very early on decided on a musical career, often singing in buses for money.

"His mother would send him to fetch water up in the wells and he would make the sound of a crowd so it would bounce off the walls and he would imagine he was being cheered," said biographer Mauricio Silva in a television interview.

Arroyo dreamt of being a balladeer and would constantly audition for radio station contests. But his first paid gig was as a singer in brothel, when he was just 13 years old. He was later recruited as the singer of Orquesta La Protesta, a salsa band in Barranquilla. At 17, he landed the gig as lead singer with Fruko y Sus Tesos, one of Colombia's most important salsa groups at a time when salsa music was undergoing a renaissance in the country.

In 1981, Arroyo created La Verdad and released "Rebelion." It was, in his own words during a 2006 interview with Herencia Latina magazine, "the orchestra's anthem. It made me known worldwide and opened the doors to Europe, Asia and Africa."

Arroyo's career would see-saw along with his health and his struggles with drugs, which he chronicled in his music. But he remained an important artist, and in the latter part of his career, devoted himself to rediscovering Colombian folk rhythms.

Throughout his lifetime, according to Silva, he placed 40 songs at No. 1 on Colombia's tropical airplay charts, more than any other singer.

"When I write, I think about the dancer and the maids; those are the ones who make my tracks hits," said Arroyo in the same interview with Herencia Latina. "I always pick three or four tropical rhythms. That allows me to reach several markets and help Colombian music expand internationally."

Arroyo is survived by his wife, Jackelín Ramón.

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