Before we get into this, it is a must I provide a little context. My barbershop is the quintessential Dominican barbershop. Tons of people, music blaring, barbers dancing as they perform their duties. In short, a hive of activity; in many ways it is a place where a party is taking place and they just happen to cut hair. This is the kind of barbershop where you may find yourself being served little plastic cups of sweet espresso while you wait for your cut, as a whole host of street peddlers enter and exit the establishment to hawk bootleg DVD’s, clothes, sunglasses, watches. Maybe even furniture. Another thing that takes place at my barbershop and others like it is conversation. Straight up, loud, unfiltered, non-politically correct, sometimes anachronistic, man talk.
October 5th, 2011 – This day, however, the barbershop was eerily soundless. Instead of the usual, over the top boom bap of the blaring Latin music, I walked into a graveyard-quiet room full of people utterly entranced by the multiple tv screens playing the same thing. I know what you are thinking, an Uptown barbershop full of Dominicans in October, they must be watching playoff baseball. But no, unbeknownst to me, this particular day was the 78thanniversary of the birth of the incomparable Ismael “Maelo” Rivera.
For those that don’t know, Ismael Rivera aka El Bruju de Borinquen or his more famous moniker El Sonero Mayor, is in my humble estimation the greatest of all of Salsa music’s many giants. While I absolutely adore Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe and the rest, you simply cannot have a serious discussion about Salsa without talking about Maelo. In fact, arguably the greatest Salsa band of all time, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, originally came about because of the unfortunate break up of Rivera’s and long time friend Cortijo’s band.
It was none other than the super important Cuban bandleader Benny Moré, who was so taken by Ismael’s skills that he dubbed him El Sonero Mayor. To hear Maelo sing is to hear Africa and its culture reminding you that we are the sons and daughters of that continent. Maelo had a voice that exuded pain and pleasure, tragedy and triumph, hurt and hope, simultaneously and effortlessly. No one could improvise like Maelo, truncating and twisting words, melodies and rhythms all without missing a beat.
On this particular day, all the televisions in the barbershop were tuned in to the Dominican Republic based Telemicro channel, which was hosting a tribute to the late great sonero. Everyone, barbers and clients alike, watched in reverential silence as the usually bombastic host respectfully asked his guests to share memories of the singer as well as their favorite songs. When the respective guests would sing a few lines of their favorite tunes, the silence would break and everyone in the place, in unison and with gusto, would belt out every word. Being such a huge fan of the icon, I could not help but be overjoyed by the entire spectacle. As everyone watched the screens mesmerized and sang with all their heart, a lone tear slipped out of my eye, which was quickly and resolutely wiped away. In that very moment, in that very place, I felt Ismael Rivera’s larger than life presence. Maelo you are gone but not forgotten. El Sonero Mayor lives!