Ismael Rivera Was a Master of the Clave


October 5th is the birthday of Latin music legend Ismael Rivera “El Sonero Mayor”, just a couple of days after the passing anniversary of his legendary partner, Rafael Cortijo.

In my opinion, he became such an influential singer in Latin music because he, and his early musical partner, Rafael Cortijo, did things differently than the rest of the crowd.

Note: this blog was originally published here on Latino Music Café on October 9th, 2010, and I’m republishing it this month in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Ismael Rivera’s passing.

Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera with Beny Moré.
Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera with Beny Moré in New York. It was Beny that gave Ismael the nickname of “El Sonero Mayor” when he saw him sing.

Back when I was what is now called a “pre-teen”, “Dime Por Que”, included in the 1972 Salsa album “Esto Fue Lo Que Trajo el Barco” was one of the songs that defined in my brain the richness of Salsa music and made me a fan. It impacted me so much that I can still remember that the 1st time I heard “Dime Por Que” was in my mom’s car returning from swim class. Unfortunately my mother wasn’t a Salsa fan, but in those days there weren’t radio stations dedicated to Salsa. Most radio stations played a bit of everything. “Dime Por Que” became very popular, and was played in the radio frequently.

La Clave and Ismael Rivera Singing Style

The thing about “Dime Por Que” that reflects the big contribution Ismael Rivera made to Latino music was that he was a master of singing around the clave. He would come up with phrasing to fill-in and make the timing for his “soneos” come in at the right time.  Phrasing like “bitukilatinbin”, yembere cu yeyeo” “maribelemba” and many others were used by Ismael Rivera to sing all around the clave, but without ever missing its timing.

Ismael Rivera 1972 Esto Fue Lo Que Trajo el Barco
Ismael Rivera’s “Esto Fue Lo Que Trajo el Barco” (1972) included the hits “Dime Por Que” (one of my first Salsa favorites), “Incomprendido” (written by Bobby Capó), and “La Gata Montesa”.

Ismael Rivera always kept the clave in front of him. If you go to YouTube and watch some of his videos of the time when he was part of Cortijo y su Combo, you can see that he tended to keep marking the clave with his fingers in a very purpose manner. Maelo would sing all around the clave without missing a beat, which was something that was not done at that time.

Many attribute Ismael Rivera with being the father of singing around the clave, which was a practice that later was widely imitated and became popular with the “soneros” that came after him. In one of his songs, which I can’t recall the name at this moment, Ismael sings “…a mi me dicen El Sonero Mayor, porque vacilo con la clave y con el tambó”.

But there is some controversy about this, as others attribute the style of singing around the clave to Cuban great Benny Moré (you can read my blog “Beny Moré: Cuba’s King of Rhythm and Improvisation” HERE). Both, Ismael and Benny were “soneros” ahead of their time.

Another great singer of the time that evolved her style to sing around the clave was the great Celia Cruz. Celia would do this by singing thing s like “a-la-la eh oh-lo” or similar simple phrasing to fill-in around the clave. Benny More would come up with things like “bele bele ben”. But singing around the clave is not just coming up with fill-in phrasing, but in the timing of the soneos themselves.

Here’s a YouTube audio clip of Ismael Rivera singing “La Cumbita”, where his ability to sing around the clave is highlighted.

The One and Only “Sonero Mayor”

Ismael’s aggressive style of singing, along with his down-to-earth voice and “soneos”, made his songs very entertaining, rather than bore us by sticking to the clave. In “Dime Por Que”, Ismael plays with phrases like “bituki lakin binbin” to do fill-ins around the clave.

For Ismael Rivera, singing around the clave came so naturally that it was hard to notice what he was doing. As a “pre-teen” I had no knowledge of the clave or what Ismael was doing. I just knew it sounded very good, and to this day, I cherish listening to “Dime Por Que” and other Ismael Rivera songs.

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