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Salsa Magazine


Ismael Rivera - El Sonero Mayor


IR_4_Fotos.jpg By Aurora Flores

He walked the path of pain and suffering, 5’ 10” of Puertorican caramelo colored prophet of Boricua soul. Smoothly called Maelo by his friends and “El Sonero Mayor” (the Master singer) by his contemporaries, Ismael Rivera was born a natural.

A skilled bricklayer and master carpenter, a six year old Maelo announced to his mom, Margarita (Doña Margo) that one day, he would have a skill to support his family -- then ran off to play rhythms banging on paint cans while shaking baby bottles big with beans. He began to sing since he had the use of reason and reason made his voice fly, dodging in and around the clave with a facility that revealed a gift from God. Reason also told him that he was born in one of the poorest sectors of San Juan -- one of five surviving siblings, seven others did not make it. Very early on, his father told him stories of roots and slavery, of love for an island that remained a slave in her own right. Maelo used this love as a shield during a time where he had to fight for respect and work for survival from his youth into manhood. Yet from deep in the belly of poverty sprang a joy and celebration of life that was not only infectious, but priceless.
IR_Full_Body.jpg Finger poppin’ claves through the snap of his fingers while his hands labored over bricks and mortar, Maelo’s noontime coros resounded through the “cangrejero” ‘hood of Santurce where he and boyhood buddy Rafael Cortijo would hustle gigs for the tribal “areitos” that released the soul at sunset. He met his partner, Rafa, (Cortijo) when he was eleven years old in elementary school. The family frowned on the friendship, quipped Doña Margo because Rafa was so Black he looked blue and always walked around with those damned drums draped around him. But fate had been sealed, Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera were to make music and history. They did.

After Maelo rocked the Island with “El Charlatan” his first hit with La Panamericana, he bought his mother a house on La Calle Calma, building the facade with his own hands. Roberto Clemente and Peruchin Cepeda had just made the big leagues, representing Puertorican Blacks with pride. And the feeling among the Island’s Blacks was one of elation. It was as if a liberating explosion hit the island in 1954.

Cortijo y Su Combo con Ismael Rivera became the first all-black band to be featured regularly on television and radio, “El Show de Medio Dia,” and “La Taberna India.” Their front line and brass section danced and jibed to the native Island rhythms infused with brassy, jazzy lines and commercial instrumentation. Cortijo incorporated Cuban montuno lines on the piano with jazz licks on the brass over the indigenous bomba rhythms of the Island. Maelo’s rapid fire soneos staccatoed over melodies creating layers of rhythms while playing catch with the clave, improvising street phrases and sometimes singing in unison with the percussion, tres or cuatro that soloed. He danced, jumped, played clave and had the audience in the palm of his hands.
MaeloColor.jpg “Someone opened the cage and let all the Blacks loose,” Maelo’s mom, Doña Margo once said. Indeed, Cortijo and Maelo’s performances had a liberating fury that crescendoed into an exhaustive ecstasy. Their music was an electrifying release Singer/composer Bobby Capo wrote hits for them as did Pedro Flores, Don Rafael Cepeda and, Doña Margo. Don Cepeda the guardian of Boricua bomba and plena rhythms had been singing tunes to the duo for years, polishing their native born knowledge of the genres.

During an interview in the summer of ‘76, Cortijo once said to me that he took the rhythms of Boricua Blood, dressed her up in her Sunday best and paraded her around the world for everyone to see. He loved her and you could feel it. In fact, when he was about to do his first album, Cortijo made a point of recording his beloved bombas and plenas first at a time in Puerto Rico when the conjunto sound was the big seller.

One of Don Cepeda’s sons, Roberto Cepeda recalls how proud his father was of them. “They brought the music of the poor out of isolation. It went from marginalization onto television and movies. Roberto muses on those early meetings. The old man would sing bombas to them, Cortijo would then transform the rhythms of certain bombas, such as a bomba juba or lero into a more fast paced bomba sica making it more appealing to a commercial dance crowd. Then he and Maelo would sing the coro together, while Cortijo would speed up the rhythms and Maelo would start working on the improvisation employing parts of the authentic African Congolese phrases into the scatted “moñas” of the tunes. During these meetings, the children would gather around Maelo who always had his pockets filled with candy and trinkets for them.

Maelo loved children. He believed that all children should feel love and joy, no matter where they came from. He recalled a fancy party in his honor at the start of his career in a top hotel in Puerto Rico. Maelo went out and rented a van gathering all the kids from the block on Calma. When the promoter of the party saw those scruffy children in the lobby
calles26Performing.jpg he started to chase them out. Maelo stepped in and said, “These are my guests and this is my party. I want them treated just like any other visitor at this hotel.” They all wound up sitting at Maelo’s table.

He was the same with beggars. It did not matter what they wanted the money for. I watched him take desperate people to eat a meal, peel off dollar bills to strung out junkies with outstretched hands, and buy groceries for the sick and elderly. I once asked him why he would throw his money away on someone who was just going to get high with it and he answered, “If youre going to be charitable don’t look at where it’s going -- just give it away and don’t look back. Thats what it’s about.” That’s what Maelo was about.

I met Maelo while I was a music correspondent for Billboard Magazine. He was my neighbor but more important, he was my friend. He came into my life at a time of great loss and heartache. An uncle in a time of need, Maelo’s fatherly treatment towards me had a healing affect. I was privileged enough to meet his mother, friends, children and many of the ladies that Maelo wooed and loved. He was a ladies man for sure, often comparing women to candy -- all good with different flavors -- but I met him in a retrospective time in his life where he was able to have friendships with women that were platonic while being emotionally intimate.

Thats when he told me about his annual pilgrimage to Panama where he told me he touched and felt the pain of the Black Christ of Portobelo --


El Nazareno moved him… inspired him… helped him stay away from heroin for 16 years. He recalled the first time that he danced with the devil horse. In the arrabales. In the ghetto. It was a common right of passage. A dare. A badge that made you into a man. In New York it got worse. At the Palladium it was a test of musical prowess. “A macho trap,” he agonized. “How bad could you be under the influence and still perform. That was the measure of manhood, of musicianship.” He knew it was a lie. He felt it deep in his soul and the windows of that heart wept with emotion.

His heart had already been broken once before. At the San Juan airport in ‘62. Maelo and Cortijo were the talk of Latin music then. They tore up the Palladium. Ripped up the Carnivals and fired up Colombia and Venezuela. They had broken through the color line -- the black barrier in Puerto Rico, increasing the pay scale for Black musicians while securing them lodging in
3_Verticals.jpg the same fancy hotels where they played. Something unheard of at that time.

Then, after nine years of hit after hit, Maelo took one of his worst hits at the terminal. Someone informed officials that the band was carrying drugs. Maelo and Cortijo were found with drugs. Maelo took the rap. He was arrested, handcuffed and paraded for all to see through “La Fortaleza.” Because it was a federal offense he was whisked to a federal prison in Atlanta after serving some time in San Juan’s “Oso Blanco” jail. Things were never the same.

Although incarcerated Maelo formed a band called “El Oso Blanco,” and helped other prisoners by getting them into music. He composed, sang and played but most of all he missed his island and his friend, Cortijo.

Back on the Island, the Cortijo band floundered. Puerto Rico was outraged at the nerve of these negros condemning their bon vivant lifestyle at the height of their success. The pianist, Rafael Itier quickly organized “El Gran Combo” and bolted taking musicians and gigs. Later, former members of the band such as Roberto Roena went their separate ways.

Maelo did about 44 months time. He returned to the island in 1966 to record a comeback album with Cortijo, “Bienvenidos.” It went flat. Promoters did not want to hire them. Puerto Rico would not forgive him. He returned to New York, broken hearted and self-destructive. He played and recorded, “Lo Ultimo de la Avenida” with percussionist Kako. By 1968, he formed, Los Cachimbos.

The trail of hits began once more. But this time, Maelo hit with a vengeance. In New York, he wrapped himself around the anonymity of the poor, the lumpen, the forgotten. Yet, he formed a family nucleus with Gladys Serrano, his companion of 20 years whom he called Gladiola. They had a child together, Carlito but Maelo also raised her first son Rodney whose birth father was Daniel Santos. In fact, many were the children that called him Papa Maelo. His house, invariably, was always filled with children. He also continued to build, constructing a series of wood paneling and “banquitos” around the foyer of his apartment. He was proud of his carpentry skill and would always make his own clave sticks out of wood he’d find in the streets.

Then he found El Nazareno. His career and voice reached its peak. He performed at a Tico-Alegre All-Star concert in Carnegie Hall headlining along with La Lupe; Yayo El Indio; Vitin Aviles. He sang “Mi Negrita Me Espera,” a tune of tribute to his mother that expressed her anxiety when he started playing all night gigs. He recorded “Cumbanchero,” where he underscores his musical mastery with the phrase, “A mi me llaman el Sonero Mayor, porque vacilo con la clave y tengo sabor,” in a rat-ta-tat
percussive word playing soneo that sounds like hard rain falling on a hot tin roof. His band was tight with a hard-hitting sound that now expressed a Puertorican/New York reality. There was a more laid back sound now with recordings such as “Traigo de Todo,” “Soy Feliz” “Dime Por Que” and songs about prison “Las Tumbas” and “El Negrito de Alabama” sprinkled with spanglish street phrases that punched through the solid wall of instrumentation like a heavyweight at a prize fight, venia por la maceta.” He was clean. He was strong. He was El Sonero Mayor.

I traveled with him and Gladiola to Panama for the yearly pilgrimage in 1978. At the airport, we were met by Panamanian officials who treated Maelo as if he were an arriving dignitary, an ambassador gracing their country with his presence. We were escorted to the hotel in Colon and treated to sumptuous dinner parties at the homes of top officials. Maelo was truly loved here.

Despite the fanfare, he was itching to get on with the spiritual tradition. He went into detail as to how the ritual would go down showing me the beautiful lilac with gold trim robe he wore for the event. “We have to walk 17 kilometers to Porto Belo. There, the people gather at the Church of San Felipe. They pray, they make promises, they sleep and they cry there. There are no cement roads and everyone travels into the small coastal town by foot. I wear the robe while walking and think about how the Christ will help me. I think of his words of love for everyone and about forgiveness for all the evil in the world. Once there, I join the other men in carrying the huge platform that supports the life-size image of El Nazareno.”

I watched with Gladiola as the men carried the huge statue around the town, three steps forward and two steps back to the beat of the drums that accompanied them. The figure stood above the ocean of people that formed the procession, seeming to walk above the heads of the crowd. We stood there transfixed in the rain holding candles that did not go out. A crucifixion was reenacted. Tears streamed down devout faces as the pain of Christ washed over us like a wave. After it was over, we found Maelo near the steps of the Church. He showed us the bruises on his shoulder from the platform and I asked him why he was cutting his hair and beard. “I grow it all year as part of my promise to El Nazareno and then I leave him my strength so that he can continue to help me.”

I thought, if Christ walked the earth today, Maelo would be one of his disciples. It is not what goes into a man that defines his character, but what comes out. What came out of Maelo was real. His recordings were punctuated with references to saints and sinners, San Miguel Arcange, El Nazareno, etc. He did not enjoy pretense and although he was strong he was sincere about his weaknesses and compassionate about humanity. He was never sarcastic with his public and demanded respect in return. At gigs, he was usually accompanied by an entourage of friends from the block whom he quickly told managers and promoters should be treated with the same regard afforded other patrons, or he’d leave. And although his circle of compadres were mostly composed of people that shared the same pain of poverty he knew so well, he also was able to hobnob with some of the most powerful, celebrated and influential people of any level. He was genuine, expressing the joy
and pain of life on a daily basis.

By the time he recorded, “De Toda Maneras Rosas,” in 1977, his voice had dropped an octave. The phrasing was still driving, the flirtation with the clave was impeccable, but the range was fading. Margarita’s boy didn’t know it then but the polyps were beginning to take hold of his vocal chords.

In 1982, Cortijo died of cancer. The visionary who brought Black musicians into the limelight of stardom, had passed. Cortijo, who not only marked a new trail of music in Salsa incorporating the native bombas and plenas of Puerto Rico but who later fused these elements with rock & roll, jazz, and nueva trova in a fusion that was celebrated even in Cuba would no longer be seen at the race tracks or playing with his children. Everyone is shocked; Maelo is devastated. He goes to Puerto Rico to mourn his brother and say goodbye. Tears flowed as he spoke to his compadre in what seemed to be a secret language of Spanish, English and African. He knelt, made the sign of the cross and prayed before the masses at the cemetery in San José cemetery in Villas Palmeras. He returns to New York with his spirit broken. He abandons the words of El Nazareno and begins to dance with Satan once more. His voice was never the same.

Two tumultuous New York years passed with Maelo literally lost in the streets of East Harlem, barefoot, crazed and confused… The once mighty warrior of Puertorican soul is seen picking from garbage, looking for quarters in phone booths and searching for solace in a lonely basement. He then runs into a preacher who takes him to his farm in Connecticut where Maelo finds the words of El Nazareno once more, cleans up and returns to his heart in Puerto Rico, the home where his belly button was buried at birth. He finds comfort in the bosom of the mother he loved so much and who inspired him so. By 1985, Maelo begins throat treatment in a heartbreaking and hopeless quest to find his voice. But in his heart of hearts, he knew it was futile because he would often say that Cortijo had the key and when he died, he took it with him.

Doña Margo told me her son sung for her, for the singer that she could never be. And indeed it was some of her tunes that shook the hit parade in Puerto Rico in the early years. But Maelo sang for everyone, especially the poor of his barrio. When he says, “Yo soy Maelo de la calle Calma cantando pa’ ti linda musica,” he brings the song back to the block where he grew up. He and Cortijo took the music of the slaves of Puerto Rico, the bomba, the music with roots in the Congo that was once banned from the Island because it caused uprisings and made it a commercial hit in the New World. He was working on a final recording (finished by his older son, Ismaelo Jr.,) “Carabali y Congolia” in May of 1987 when the heart attack struck, jolting him into his mother’s arms.

In New York, I left my young son with my mother so I could attend the funeral. I left alone. I had to see Papa Maelo one more time. When I reached the community center at the housing project of Llorens Torres the area was packed with fans and mourners. Drummers like Giovanni Hidalgo, Cachete Maldonado, Roberto Roena and many others played tribute to El Sonero. Inside, the Center was also packed with people, family, children and women.

I approached the box, kneeled and talked to my teacher and mentor who taught me so much about life. I recalled the time we went walking in Panama through El Chorillo. I asked him why the women’s arms had eruptions as if the skin were bursting through. He told me, “Ay bendito Aurorita. Those women are prostitutes and if they don’t make enough money their pimps cut up their arms. They never go to the hospitals.” He explained that many of those women had no formal education and this was the only way they knew to support their children or sick mothers. He told me I should never judge the plight of another human being even if you walked in their shoes. At that point, a dusty old man with no teeth yelled out, “Salsa.” Maelo and I stopped. The skinny old Black man hugged and kissed him. Maelo introduced me as his niece. The old man began to snap his fingers in clave and sing a coro. Maelo began to harmonize with the coro and then lifted his voice in full song finishing the tune. He told the old man he would use it in his next recording called, “Caras Lindas.”

I remembered the runs around Central Park’s reservoir. I was young and lazy and he would push me to finish around the track shaming me into it by saying, “You’re only 27, I’m 49 -- if I can do it so can you. And then he’d break into song.” I remembered the juices he would make out of carrots, oranges and watercress after we’d finish jogging. I remember the smell of the hot farina he loved to eat and the many many discussions he held in his apartment and in the vest pocket park on 104th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Somehow, the rumberos would always know when he was there and they’d come out to jam with him. Maelo never refused. But when the rumba was over, he’d play a bomba…a plena and tell them they had to know their roots first. They had to preserve the music that held the life source of the people of the earth. They had to conserve it, maintain it and never forget it.

I cried as I knelt and prayed over him. He had made millions throughout his career and he gave it all away just like he gave everything to his public and to his music,. As the casket was being closed, I spotted Sammy Ayala a longtime friend and former singer with Maelo. I asked him if he could let me carry the coffin with the other men. He moved over and gave me a little space and said, “Of course, you’re family.” We carried him outside to where the crowd waited. We never made it to the hearse. The people took him on their shoulders, parading him the same way he carried El Nazareno. Even the governor of Puerto Rico showed up in a guayabera and took his turn carrying him to the cemetary where he was laid to rest beside his long time friend and brother, Rafa Cortijo.

¡Que descansen en paz, Ecua - Jei!
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