José Antonio "Maceo" Rodríguez

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The longtime lead singer for the group Sierra Maestra, José Antonio Rodríguez was a driving force in expanding the worldwide popularity of the traditional music of his native Cuba. Known as "el Pequeño…
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The longtime lead singer for the group Sierra Maestra, José Antonio Rodríguez was a driving force in expanding the worldwide popularity of the traditional music of his native Cuba. Known as "el Pequeño Gran Sonero" (the Little Big Sonero), his small stature masked a voice of astonishing power. Born April 17, 1953, in Cuba's Holguin province, Rodríguez spent the majority of his adolescence in Havana. While studying telecommunications at Havana University, in 1976 he and classmates Juan de Marcos Gonzáles and Jesús Alemañy formed Sierra Maestra, considered the first contemporary group rooted in the traditional Afro-Latin music of the 1920s, dubbed "son." With Rodríguez's potent tenor as its focal point, the nine-piece band quickly emerged as a staple of the Cuban festival circuit, and after a series of television appearances cut its debut LP, 1981's Sierra Maestra Llegó con el Guanajo Relleno. With the 1982 follow-up, Y Son Asi, Sierra Maestra won the annual Girasol prize, awarded to Cuba's most popular group. They also toured Spain, France, and Scandinavia, the first in what would become an annual European trek. With the exits of Gonzáles and Alemañy, Rodríguez -- nicknamed "Maceo" in honor of the Cuban patriot Antonio Maceo -- was Sierra Maestra's unrivaled leader, achieving new global recognition in the wake of 1994's Dundunbaza, released internationally on the fledgling World Circuit label. He also sang on LPs headlined by Buena Vista Social Club veterans Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González, as well as the first Afro-Cuban All Stars album. Minutes after a live Sierra Maestra date in Copenhagen on November 6, 2005, Rodríguez collapsed backstage and died. He was just 52 years old.