In the rarefied air of the premier salsa singers, the influential Ismael Rivera personifies the role of the vocalist as the musical interpreter and voice of the common people, where the music originated. He is recognized as “El Sonero Mayor,” which translates into the master improviser, for his uncanny ability to invent and compose lyrics on the spot, and in perfect time.
The town of Loiza Aldea, in Puerto Rico (east of San Juan) is recognized as a vital source of African derived music and rhythms on the island, primarily the bomba and plena, which are indigenous to the area. Ismael Rivera was born there on Oct. 5, 1931. He was drawn to the music since childhood, and assimilated the nuances and phrasings which would be his unique styling.
Rivera got his start as vocalist for a local band Conjunto Agueybana, and then got a break to join up with Lito Peña and his Orquesta La Panamericana, a very popular band in the early 1950’s. He made his first recordings “Charlatan,” with this outfit, but left soon after to sing with Machito and his band.
He would then team up with his childhood friend Rafael Cortijo to form the band that would incorporate the bomba and plena into their repertoire, and came up with an original sound, anchored by Rivera’s vocalizations. The group, Cortijo y su Combo, became sensation on the island as well as New York. Starting with the 1954 hit “El Bombón de Elena,” they enjoyed much success into the late ‘50’s and into the early ‘60’s with international tours as well as continued recordings which generated an expanding audience. Unfortunately in 1962, Rivera would go into a forced musical hiatus due to complicated legal and personal problems, which led to his incarceration for a number of years.