Musical Creation and Hardship

A REVIEW BY PEDRO REINA-PEREZ

The People’s Poet: Life and Myth of Ismael Rivera, an Afro Caribbean Icon
By Rosa Elena Carrasquillo
Pompano Beach: Caribbean Studies Press, 2014, 246 pages

The day Rafael Cortijo’s remains were put to rest in Puerto Rico in 1982, his admirers came out in full force to honor their tropical music hero one last time. But one man caught everyone’s attention as he walked in front holding the coffin over his head with both hands. To all the people who lined the streets, Ismael Rivera’s grief was evident, in this last tribute to the man with whom he had shared the stage and a long history of musical creation and hardship. 

Few artists have captured the public’s imagination like singer Ismael Rivera, “Maelo,” a veritable legend of urban Puerto Rican music. His was a life of extremes, a dramatic journey both literally and metaphorically whose dramatic arch extended well beyond his lifetime. Tenacity, creativity and audacity were three of the traits that distinguished him from his peers. Today he is still revered as troubadour genius for his resourceful intonation and for his unique talent for improvisation. With Rafael Cortijo, his compadre and musical sidekick, he burst into the San Juan scene at a time of many cultural and economic changes that would come to define “modern” Puerto Rico, and their music became the sound of an era. 

In The People’s Poet: Life and Myth of Ismael Rivera, an Afro Caribbean Icon, Rosa Elena Carrasquillo traces the life of Maelo, offering a nuanced interpretation of his rise and fall as lead singer for the ensemble Cortijo y su Combo as a metaphor of post-colonialism in the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico in particular. She follows his evolution from childhood in Santurce (Musical Cradle 1931-1954); his rise to stardom (The Golden Years 1954-1962); troubles with the law (Imprisoned 1962-1966); incursion into the emerging salsa scene (Salsa Heights 1966-1979); and final curtain call (Desolation 1979-1986).  Santurce is a storied neighborhood where runaway slaves took refuge in the 17th century and infused their new-found community with strong musical practices. By the 20th century, Santurce had become San Juan’s first suburb, a very dynamic neighborhood with cultural diversity and richness. Life in Villa Palmeras, the modest section where Maelo grew up and spent the better part of life, was infused with musical rhythms rooted in African traditions like bomba and plena.  Maelo learned how to build barriles and panderos, the two percussion instruments used in these two popular genres in which dancers and drummers constantly improvise. This was the foundation upon which he built his artistic career.

Maelo’s mother Margarita initiated him in music. Through interviews and  archival research, Carrasquillo takes a close look at this family, revealing how intimate influences played a crucial role in his sensibility. 

In 1954, Maelo and Cortijo soon joined forces in Conjunto Monterrey where Cortijo played bongos and Rivera, congas. Maelo gained a reputation as a clever lead singer with much creativity in improvisation. After a short stint in the U.S. Army, he returned home to become the lead singer for Orquesta Panamericana and shortly after rejoined Cortijo in his new Combo and went on to reach stardom traveling with the band to New York, Europe and South America.

At the same time this was happening, Puerto Rico underwent a dramatic transformation led by industrialization and by the development of tourism as a magnet for economic growth. Beachfront hotels with casinos were built, and the island was promoted as a tourist destination in the U.S. market with great success. Yet, for all the talk of modernization, people of color were not allowed in ballrooms and most hotels. Musicians had to enter through the service door. Cortijo y su Combo, however, challenged convention as they clearly defined themselves as mulatos and were in very high demand. They began playing in hotels, and with the advent of television became regulars in variety shows conquering the public with their unique sound. Crowds adored their original and defiant approach to plena and son. No other group had achieved so much fame in an island with such pervasive racism. They tested established prejudice and found extraordinary support in the general public. But when Ismael was arrested and charged for drug possession as the band was returning from playing in Panama, he and the band quickly fell from grace, experiencing a devastating blow to their popularity. Maelo served a four-year sentence.

After being released, he formed a new band, Ismael Rivera y los Cachimos. But things were not the same. Although they played for eight years and recorded some of his most memorable songs (written by Tite Curet Alonso), his life was irreparably broken.

Carrasquillo’s book approached Maelo’s biography not simply as that of an artist fallen from grace by his fame and fortune but that of a creator whose work brought down barriers in terms of social class and race. In her words, “Ismael illustrated a type of hero of postcolonial times in which heroism abandons patriotic martyrdom for daily survival. Particularly on an island where the U.S. Congress ultimately controls politics, Puerto Ricans give great significance to the realm of daily routines and culture as it is the only allowed possibility for imagining a nation.”

Pedro Reina Pérez, a historian, journalist and blogger, was the 2013-14 DRCLAS Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar. He is a professor of Humanities and Cultural Agency and Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. Among his books and edited volumes are Compañeras la Voz Levantemos (2015), Poeta del Paisaje (2014) and La Semilla Que Sembramos (2003).  More of his work at www.pedroreinaperez.com

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