Two weeks ago, we covered the art of sonando, and how the sonero is a dying breed within the Salsa community. There have been many soneros since way before it’s golden age in between the late 50s and late 70s, but only a few stand out, having been given legendary status. Only one has been given the title of Sonero Mayor, the premiere improviser for his talented ability of improvising lyrics and rhythm on the spot.
Ismael Rivera, or Maelo, as he was affectionately known, began his music career as the lead singer of a band led by Rafael Cortijo, Maelo’s best friend since childhood. This partnership, combined with the band they formed would play at small venues earning a respectable following. Afterwards, Ismael would venture on to sing lead for other bands led by the likes of Lito Peña and Machito but eventually would rejoin with Rafael Cortijo and his band. A partnership that gave birth to the world renowned “Cortijo y Su Combo”.
Maelo and Cortijo y su Combo gained enough popularity to enjoy touring the world singing at venues as far away as Europe. The band itself became a starting point for the careers of many legendary salseros like Roberto Roena (Apollo sound) and Rafael Ithier (founder of El Gran Combo).
With fame comes temptation, and for Maelo, that temptation was the drug trade. Allegedly, he and his bandmates would conceal drugs on themselves and smuggle them into Puerto Rico. His last attempt occurred after a trip from Panamá, in which he was caught upon arrival into PR. Maelo took the fall for his bandmates and went on to serve seven years in prison. Upon release, Maelo found himself as a free agent. Free to decide what he wanted to do with his career. He decided to form his own band. Ismael Rivera y los Cachimbos.
Ismael and his new band went on to perform together for eight years before again returning to his roots with Cortijo. He, Cortijo, and their band would go on to produce many hits that remain popular to this day, from El Nazareno, Juntos otra vez, volare, and today’s feature for Flashback Fridays “Las Caras Lindas”.
One of my personal favorites. Even though it wasn’t written by the singer, his pride in his afro-Latino culture resonates throughout the song while raising awareness about the beauty of afro-Latinos and how it should be something to be proud of as opposed to being something that is rejected. I hope you enjoy this song, it’s message, as well as appreciate the talent that earned Puerto Rico’s favorite son the title of El Sonero Mayor.