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Ismael Rivera

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Ismael Rivera also known as “El Sonero Mayor” (The Premiere Improviser) (October 5, 1931 – May 13, 1987), was a renowned composer and singer of salsa music.

Rivera, nicknamed “Maelo”, born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, was the first of five children born to Luis and Margarita Rivera. His father, Luis, was a carpenter and his mother a housewife. As a child, Rivera was always singing and banging on cans with sticks. He received his primary education at the Pablo G. Goyco elementary school and then went on to learn carpentry at a vocational school. He shined shoes to help his family financially and when he was 16 years old, he worked as a carpenter. During his free time he would hang around the corner with his best friend Rafael Cortijo and sing songs.

In 1948, Rivera and Cortijo joined El Conjunto Monterrey, where Rivera played the conga and Cortijo the bongos. Rivera was unable to work full-time as a musician, due to the fact that he worked as a carpenter.


In 1952, Rivera joined the U.S. Army but, was quickly discharged as he didn’t speak English. When he returned to Puerto Rico he went to work with the Panamerican Orchestra, thanks to the recommendation of his friend Cortijo. Rivera recorded and scored his first “hits” with the songs “El Charlatan”, “La Vieja en Camisa” (The Old Lady in a Shirt) and “La Sazon de Abuela”. However, an incident between Rivera and another band member over a girl, led to his departure from the band.

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