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Home | Research Library | ISMAEL RIVERA


Ismael Rivera also known as "El Sonero Mayor" (The Premiere Improviser) (October 5, 1931 -- May 13, 1987), was a renowned composer and singer of salsa music. "Maelo" was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. It all started on the very same street Rivera was born and raised on: Calle Calma. 

There he was instilled with the sounds and rhythms of Puerto Rico: the bomba and plena. At a young age, Rivera was exposed to the influences that would set him on his musical destiny. First, his mother, Margarita, bore in him a love for singing. His father, Luis, was a carpenter and his mother a housewife. As a child, Rivera was always singing and banging on cans with sticks. He received his primary education at the Pablo G. Goyco elementary school and then went on to learn carpentry at a vocational school. He shined shoes to help his family financially and when he was 16 years old, he worked as a carpenter. During his free time he would hang around the corner with his best friend Rafael Cortijo and sing songs.  

Ismael Rivera
Photo of a mural found in Barrio Obrero in Saturce, Puerto Rico

In 1948, Rivera and Cortijo joined El Conjunto Monterrey, where Rivera played the conga and Cortijo the bongos. Rivera was unable to work full-time as a musician, due to the fact that he worked as a carpenter. 

In 1952, Rivera joined the U.S. Army but, was quickly discharged as he didn't speak English. When he returned to Puerto Rico he went to work with the Panamerican Orchestra, thanks to the recommendation of his friend Cortijo. Rivera recorded and scored his first "hits" with the songs "El Charlatan", "La Vieja en Camisa" (The Old Lady in a Shirt) and "La Sazon de Abuela". However, an incident between Rivera and another band member over a girl, led to his departure from the band. 

In 1954, he joined Cortijo's Combo and recorded the many songs which soon became hits in the American Latino community, particularly: "El Bombon de Elena" and "El Negro Bembon".  

Their popularity was largely due to their rhythmic sound and the band's ability to simultaneously play great music and entertain through rapidly choreographed dance routines. The one element that separated Cortijo y su Combo from all the other Latin song-and-dance bands was the voice of Rivera. A key ingredient to the bomba and plena sound of Puerto Rico is vocals and Maelo's voice is the single most defining aspect of his music. With a booming, precisely rhythmic, yet equally spontaneous voice, Ismael Rivera was a master of the Cuban son. 

Cortijo's Combo continued to gain fame and so did Rivera's reputation as a lead singer. Benny More visited the island and was impressd with Rivera's voice, he baptized Rivera "El Sonero Mayor" (The Premiere Improviser). The band went to New York City and played in the famed Palladium Ballroom, where the orchestras of Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri also played. 

In 1959, Rivera, together with Cortijo and his Combo, participated in the European produced movie titled "Calipso", starring Harry Belafonte. He traveled with Cortijo's Combo, which also included Rafael Ithier and Roberto Roena, to Europe, Central and South America. Rivera was suspected of being involved with an illegal drug transaction during a trip to Panama.  

He was arrested upon his arrival to Puerto Rico, convicted and sentenced to jail. This event led to the break-up of Cortijo's Combo. Shortly after, Rafael Ithier, regrouped some of the former members and formed El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. Maelo later sang about his experience on a track, titled "Las Tumbas (The Tombs)," named after the Kentucky prison that had several floors below ground. 

Ismael Rivera y Sus Cachimbos
De Todas Maneras Rosas
Ismael Rivera y Sus Cachimbos
Original Release Date: 1977

Upon his release from jail, Rivera formed his own band called Ismael Rivera and his Cachimbos. The successful band lasted for eight years. Rivera reunited with Cortijo and recorded "Juntos Otra Vez" (Together Again). Later, Rivera went solo and did well with the recordings of "El Sonero Mayor" and "Volare (salsa style)". He was to score his greatest "hit" with "Las Cara Lindas (De Mi Gente Negra)" (The Pretty Faces (Of My Black People) written by Tite Curet Alonso.  

In the 1970s, Rivera was looked upon as a legend from another era, and he helped a number of young musicians get their start in the New York salsa scene, including Ismael Miranda and Ruben Blades.   One of his last public performances was in Paris, as an opener for Bob Marley in 1979. 

The death of his childhood friend, Rafael Cortijo in 1982, affected him emotionally to the point that he couldn't sing in the tribute to Cortijo celebrated at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Rivera was actively involved in the creation of a historical museum which depicts the contributions made to the cultural life of Puerto Rico by the black Puerto Ricans. 

Ismael Rivera died on May 13, 1987 in the arms of his mother Margarita, from a heart attack. Celia Cruz recorded a tribute to Ismael Rivera and so did Dario y su ComboRican. 

On September 27, 2001, the Puerto Rican Senate approved the law #134 declaring October 5 as "Ismael Rivera Day". In Villa Palmeras, Santurce, Puerto Rico, there is a plaza named "Plaza de los Salseros" which has a statue and plaque dedicated to Ismael. 

Video "El Negro Bembon"

Ismael was among the first singers to raise social and racial issues, for example in "El Negro Bembon", he tells the true story of a man shooting a black man in Spanish Harlem, who in the neighborhood was known as a humble and innocent person, affectionally called "El Negro Bembon" (literally big-lipped negro). The police officer questioning the killer asks him why he killed the man, who answers: "por ser tan bembon" -- because he had such big lips/was black. The officer, himself black, tries to hide his own lips and whispers: that's not a reason/right.  

The killer was not convicted and Ismael Rivera was the first one to highlight the injustice and racial issues in New York during that time, skillfully combining the anger, suffering and injustice that occurred. The song became a hit in New York and raised public awareness of the incident on a national level.  

El Negro Bembon:  

Mataron al negro bembón

Mataron al negro bembón

Hoy se llora noche y día

Porque el negrito bembón

Todo el mundo lo queria

Porque el negrito bembón

Todo el mundo lo queria 

Y llegó la policia

Y arrestaron al maton

Y uno de las policias

Que tambíen era bembón

Le toco la mala suerte

De hacer la investigación

Le toco la mala suerte

De hacer la investigación 

Y saben la pregunta

que le hizo al maton

Porque lo mato

Diga usted la razon

Y saben la pregunta

que le dio el maton :

yo lo mate

por ser tan bembón

El guardia escondio

la bemba y le dijo :

Eso no es razo 

Among the written works about Ismael Rivera are the following: 


Wikipedia; Allmusic; "Ismael Rivera, El Sonero Mayor" (1993) by César Pagano (Colombia); "Salsa, sabor y control!, sicologia de la musica tropical"" (1998) by Ángel G. Quintero Rivera; "Dialogo" (1998) by Francisco Cabanillas (United States); "Bailando en casa del Trompo" (1999) by Lil Rodríguez (Venezuela); "Ismael Rivera, El sonero mayor" by Rafael Figueroa Hernández.  

Bolding added by BAILA Society; Research on "El Negro Bembon" by BAILA Society  

·  Eddie Palmieri