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A singer and composer, Maelo is the famous interpreter of folk songs from his country PHOTOGRAPHY: Heabbi
A singer and composer, Maelo is a famous translator of folk songs from his country. Photo: Heabbi

The legacy of Ismael Rivera: El Sonero Mayor

The impact of Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Ismael Rivera can be felt in the debate about the essence of salsa and other musical genres.

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Thirty-four years after the death of El Sonero Mayor, his figure continues to shine in the memory of the Puerto Ricans, in the rhythms of those who picked up his salsa legacy, and who remember his commitment against racism.

A crucial figure for understanding salsa, writer Marcos Hassan recently reviewed the discography of the legendary singer-songwriter in "A Guide to the Discography of Ismael Rivera, Salsa's Most Fearless Singer" for Bandcamp. In it, he journeys from El sonero mayor to some of the songs that made international stars in Maelo.

But beyond the bombas and plenas or their impact on Latino music, was a person committed to the struggle of his community. 'El Brujo de Borinquen' was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1931 to a humble family that only spoke Spanish. He rose to fame by joining Cortijo Y Su Nuevo Combo after completing his military service and was then hired at the New York City Palladium Ballroom in the 1950s.

In 1962, his career suffered a significant setback when he had to serve a four-year sentence in Kentucky for drug possession. However, from that hard experience he was reborn and formed a new group, Los Cachimbos, which went on to innovate the salsa genre by mastering soneros — the equivalent of the freestyle in the world of rap, but on a salsa melody.

There is controversy about the role of soneros in determining the essence of a good salsero singer and about their dynamic of aggressive dialect. What is clear is the ability to improvise (brincarla) on the part of Puerto Rican artists that has impacted a whole new generation of artists on the island, from reggetoneros to rappers. It is also no surprise to music lovers that Puerto Ricans are successful in the new musical improvisation competitions.

Ismael Rivera marked new directions for salsa from the 70s onward, not only as a vocalist and composer, but also as an innovative teacher of future legends such as Gilberto Santa Rosa, Victor Manuelle or Rubén Blades. He was also an artist capable of integrating social themes in his lyrics and led by example when showcasing his flow.

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