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Álvaro José Arroyo

Posted: 07/31/11 05:07 PM ET

Cowritten by Roque Planas and Eline Gordts.

Álvaro José Arroyo, better known as "Joe," died Tuesday of multiple organ failure on the intensive care unit of a Barranquilla hospital. The Colombian singer and composer was 55.

On Tuesday, July 26, Colombia mourned the death of its salsa star in a six-hour funerary procession in Baranquilla. In both his hometown of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and his adopted home of Baranquilla where he died, the municipal governments declared an official three-day period of mourning. The outpouring of sympathy from colleagues and politicians continued on Twitter and Facebook. "I'm sorry to hear of Joe Arroyo's death," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a tweet. "A great loss for music and for Colombia." Venezuelan salsa star Óscar de León announced he will dedicate his show on Saturday to his "brother" Arroyo's memory.

Born in a poor neighborhood of Cartagena, music gushed through Joe Arroyo's veins for practically as long as he lived. He started singing at age 8 and by the time he was a teenager, he was singing in the bars and brothels of his hometown.

Arroyo got his first professional break in 1973, when he joined the legendary salsa band Fruko y Sus Tesos, with whom he recorded one of his biggest hits in 1975, "Tania." The song celebrated the birth of his first daughter, but took on a different meaning when she died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 26 in November of 2001.

In 1981, Arroyo went on to front his own group. Heading La Verdad, he penned the song he is perhaps best known: his 1986 Afro-Colombian anthem "Rebellion." Set in the 17th century, the song tells the story of an enslaved African man who attacks his Spanish overlord for hitting his wife. In a driving refrain that carries the song, he sings that you can still hear the man's voice in Cartagena yelling "don't hit my negra!" ("Negra" is a Spanish-language term to refer to a black woman.)

"Rebellion" became an instant hit throughout the Caribbean and it remains a staple in salsa clubs from New York to Buenos Aires. It's success owed as much to its message as its danceability. With 9.4 million African-descended people, according to the CIA World Factbook, Colombia has South America's largest black population. Racial injustice shaped the environment that Arroyo, himself Afro-Colombian, was born into. The lyrics celebrate an uprising against the state of "perpetual slavery," Arroyo sings of. "It's how Joe condenses the history of the black population of Latin America," Arroyo's biographer Mauricio Silva told the BBC.

Arroyo's musical career continued for another two decades. By the end of it, he had amassed a collection of over 40 records, 300 songs and cultivated a style unique enough to merit its own name -- "Joesón." He described it in a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone as "a sound that has elements of soca, salsa, African sounds, cumbia, sea breeze and about 50 percent of it comes from inside me, but I don't have any damn idea which."

Inspiration came to him mostly at night, as he slept. "It happens when I'm sleeping, but still in reality I'm conscious. That's when divine, sublime ideas come to me. Most of the time, they get lost. For a long time, I've kept a recorder by the bed and when it comes, boom! I record the idea. And the next day, I'll say 'shiiiiit! What's this!'" Arroyo told his biographer Silva. "For example, I dreamed 'Catalina del mar' entirely. Just as I dreamed it, that's how I wrote it."

Arroyo also charmed people with his flamboyant character and his booming sense of self-confidence. "Another 300 years will pass before someone else like me appears," Arroyo used to say, according to Colombian daily El Tiempo. "I humbly believe I am the most important voice in Colombian tropical music in the last 40 years."

But Arroyo's exuberant lifestyle came at the expense of his health. He struggled with drug abuse and suffered from a host of illnesses, ranging from thyroid problems, to diabetes, to hypertension. He survived several close-calls -- including a diabetic coma while on tour in Barcelona in 2000. His health completely collapsed last month, when he entered a Baranquilla hospital with pneumonia, heart failure and kidney problems.

Immediately following the news of his death, the Latin Grammy Awards Committee announced the Colombian singer would receive the prize for musical excellence in September.

Roque Planas is co-founder of the Latin America News Dispatch. He currently writes for the website of the Americas Society.