Joe Arroyo: Salsa artist and towering figure in Colombian music who sang of love, spirituality and emancipation

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The Independent Online

Joe Arroyo was the biggest star of 20th century Colombian music, and unquestionably one of the greatest salsa singers.

An instinctive and compulsive composer, he sang songs of love, spirituality and emancipation in an explosive, searing tenor, often using a peculiar, squealing vocal mannerism that became his most obvious trademark. His best-known hits were La Noche, Rebelión (about an African slave couple who rebel against their Spanish master) and En Baranquilla Me Quedo ("I'm sticking around Baranquilla").

He first became a national star in the 1970s with Fruko y sus Tesos, with whom he recorded around 15 albums as lead singer. From the mid-1970s he also made four albums with The Latin Brothers and sang on hits with Los Líderes, before founding his own band La Verdad [The Truth]. Between 1981 and 2007, they released 23 albums on Discos Fuentes and Sony, profoundly influencing salsa worldwide.

While Arroyo's music was unmistakeably Colombian, with strong flavours of cumbia, and lesser-known local traditional styles such as porro, guarare and chandé, he also drew on a wide pan-Caribbean array of influences, including Dominican merengue, Haitian compas, Trinidadian soca, Antillean zouk and even reggae. He called this distinctive and eclectic fusion Joesón.

"When I write, I think about the dancer and the maids; those are the ones who make my tracks hits," Arroyo said in a 2006 interview. "I always pick three or four tropical rhythms. That allows me to reach several markets and help Colombian music expand internationally." On hearing of his death, Sue Steward, author of the book Salsa (Thames & Hudson, 1999) described his appeal: "It was the tone of his voice. It's so raw – almost brutal – but incredibly beautiful." Arroyo's punishing touring schedule and wild, drug-fuelled lifestyle took a serious toll on his health, and he suffered recurring ailments in the latter part of his career.

Alvaro José Arroyo Gonzalez was the son of Guillermo Arroyo, known as El Negro Chombo (later immortalised in a song co-written with Fruko) and one of 39 children he had with six women, all called Angela. His mother was a waitress in cheap hotels, and struggled to support herself after Guillermo abandoned them. From the age of six, José had to work carrying tins of water to a local shop. He developed his passion for singing by delighting in the resonances of the empty containers as he sang with them over his head, imitating his favourite singers Raphael, Bobby Cruz and Celia Cruz.

From the age of eight he sang in a choir in Santo Domingo College, where he met a piano teacher who got also got him a regular job singing with Los Seven del Swing in the huge brothels of Cartagena. This also led to him becoming lead singer in Cartagena's main choir. After five years there was a bust-up between the musicians and the brothel owners, but Arroyo learned of a new band forming in Galapa, a town on Colombia's Atlantic coast. Thus he left his studies in high school and his mother (who gave up hope of him becoming a lawyer) to join La Protesta de Colombia, the group that became his "new family".

He made his first recordings with Manuel Villanueva y sus Orquesta and Supercombo Los Diamantes in 1970, and the following year with La Protesta. Then at 17 he was recruited as the lead singer of Fruko y sus Tesos, scoring his first national hit with them in 1973 with "El Ausente"; he soon moved to Medellí* to join the band. "Tania", his first big self-written hit with them, followed soon after, and the band began to travel more and more, leading the Colombian salsa boom of the 1970s.

By the end of the decade, Arroyo was one of Colombia's highest paid singers, and when he decided to form his own band in 1981, he met sceptics who greeted the idea that he would do such a thing with the phrase "E verdad?" ["Is it true?] by coining the group's self-explanatory moniker.

In 1983 the whole of Colombia was on tender hooks when Arroyo fell into a coma for three months. Most blamed his frantic touring schedule and gargantuan drug intake, though he later claimed that it was due to thyroid problems. He bounced back soon after with "A Mi Dios Todo Le Debo" ["I Owe God Everything"]. With La Verdad, Arroyo became an international star, a regular at jazz festivals in Europe, the New York Salsa Festival and the Carnaval de Baranquilla, Colombia's biggest salsa event. By 1990 he had won so many of its highest accolade, the Congo de Oro, that the organisers established the Super Congo de Oro to give others a chance.

Arroyo's massive 1988 album Fuego En Mi Mente spawned the hits "La Noche" and "En Baranquilla Me Quedo". The following year it became the first of three albums (retitled as Fire In My Mind) re-issued on the UK label Mango. Also in 1989, World Circuit released the influential compilation Rebellion, and Arroyo made his UK debut at London's Empire Ballroom, documented in the BBC 2 series Rhythms Of The World.

He returned in 1991, 1992 and 1993, but a planned appearance at the Carnaval de Pueblo in south London in 2005 was cancelled after the organisers failed to come up with promised dates in Europe afterwards, although health problems were given as the official reason. In 1999, the UK label Riverboat released the compilation La Noche, and Rebelió* Tropical: The Very Best of Fruko & Joe Arroyo appeared on Nascente in 2011.

At the time he was taken into hospital in June, Arroyo had become the subject of Colombia's most popular soap opera El Joe, La Leyenda. On the morning he died the Latin Academy announced its plan to award him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammys in November.

Alvaro José Arroyo Gonzalez, singer, songwriter and bandleader: born Cartajena, Colombia 1 November 1955; married Jaquelí* Ramos (eight children); died Barranquilla, Colombia 26 July 2011.