Salsa's roots in the sonero tradition has been, for the last decade, somewhat fuzzied by commercial efforts to attract the youth market. Abel Delgado provides a primer for those of us who seek "the real thing."
Article: Soneros: A Dying Breed? by Abel Delgado
Walk into any salsa record shop, and prepare to be seduced. Smooth romantic salsa flows from the speakers, and perfectly coiffed, doe-eyed singers smolder at you from CD covers. They sell songs of heartbreak, tears, and of course, plenty of love. Young people love these lovey-dovey salsa singers. However, many people whose timeline stretches past the early 1980s may look at the pretty boys and girls and wonder what happened to the nearly mythical salsa singers called "soneros" who preceded "los niños bonitos." Have they disappeared, or are they just endangered, like many other forms of life?
Miguelito Valdés--an all time great, wonderful voice, versatile and funkier than James Brown backed by Parliament singing on a hot day with no deodorant.
To answer these questions, we need to explore the roots of the sonero tradition in order to understand its aesthetics and contrast them to today's music. First of all, sonero comes from the word son, which is a musical rhythm created in eastern Cuba over a century ago. Most musicians and musicologists will tell you that son is the basis for much of modern day salsa, both rhythmically and structurally. According to Luis Tamargo, senior editor of Latin Beat magazine and music historian, at first, anybody who played the son, whether singer or instrumentalist, was a sonero. However, he says that "in recent decades, particularly since the 1960s, people have identified the word 'sonero' with the singers."
Tamargo says that the son "is a mulatto tradition," because it integrates both African and Spanish music. In fact, these cultures produced the first aesthetic of the sonero--the ability to improvise between repeating choruses known as montunos. The lyrical improvisations are called 'soneos' or 'inspiraciones.' One of the main sources for this idea that the singer had to improvise comes from the Spanish décimas and romances, songs where singers invented rhyming lyrics on the spot. Legendary flutist, composer, arranger and producer Johnny Pacheco also cites "la rumba flamenca," another form of Spanish music that relied on improvisation. The call and response pattern, where the singer sang between repetitive choruses, is from African music, says Tamargo. Yorubas chanted to their orishas in Cuba using call and response, as did the many other tribes brought to Cuba during the slave trade. This blended with the tradition of ad-libbed lyrics from Spanish music. Now the improvised lyrics, instead of following the AB format of traditional décimas, were sung between the repeated choruses. (Although not a décima, José Martí's Versos sencillos give a clear idea of the AB rhyme structure.) This pattern became dominant in son-related Cuban music. However, there are many songs—mostly in the punto guajiro tradition—where soneros improvise in a décima AB style for several bars without a chorus.
A related aspect of the sonero aesthethic that also is probably from Spanish musical tradition is competition. Often, Spanish singers dueled each other with rhymed verses, and this carried over to Cuban music, especially in the punto guajiro. When son developed in eastern Cuba, it was a rural form of music related to punto guajiro. Competition quickly became part of the son tradition as well, and many soneros were forged in the heat of battle. The great Abelardo Barroso, one of the first soneros, recounts in "En Guantánamo":
"Desde 1920 hermano, vengo pulsando la lira/luchando con los soneros, negra, ninguno me hizo na'/en Guantánamo na' má fue dónde me sacudí/uno llamado Pepe Luis Juan Pablo, ése sí que daba bueno/yo me sostuvo sereno madre/el rato que estuve ahí, tu verás".
Pepe Luis, whoever he was, apparently was good enough that even Abelardo chose to be quiet instead of challenging him. Sonero battles, although rare, still form a part of the tradition today; a fine recorded example of this is "Quítate Tú para Ponerme Yo" by the Fania All Stars
Besides improvising and competing fiercely, another standard was set with these early singers. They were generally from rural Cuba, rough men who worked at rough jobs when they weren't playing. Their voices were also rough. The first Cuban soneros were characterized by "the quality of the voice, which is a nice, heavy, powerful voice," says Pacheco. In addition to this voice quality, Tamargo adds that soneros needed to have soul when they sang, a funky flavor akin to what R&B singers like James Brown have, because "singing the son is like singing the blues. You're not looking for someone with a pretty voice. You're looking for someone with feeling."
During those initial stages of son, Cuban music was strictly divided according to genre. Son groups only played son. Danzón groups only played danzón, and rumberos only played rumba. But the next few decades saw an explosion of Cuban music marked by rapid development of new rhythms and instrumentation. Arsenio Rodríguez had his own son band, and in the late 1930s, says Tamargo, he introduced the conga drum to both son groups and danzón groups the same night by having his brother play conga for his group and then for a danzón band headed by Antonio Arcaño.
Because of this and other innovations, (notably by the Machito band, which many consider to be the granddaddy of the modern salsa bands we hear today), the barriers between genres broke down, and Cuban bands started playing a little of everything. By the early 1940s, soneros had developed another major aesthetic-versatility. A sonero had to be able to sing not just sones, but also guarachas, danzones and more. The 1940s and 1950s produced a golden lineup of soneros, like Beny Moré, Miguelito Cuní, Tito Rodríguez, and Ismael Rivera, to name a few, all of whom were great improvisers and very well rounded. Beny himself stated this aesthetic clearly in "Elige Tú que Canto Yo":
"Conmigo no hay aquello de que no canto una canción/conmigo no hay aquello de que canto un bolero/yo canto una guaracha, una rumba y hasta un son/y canto cualquier cosa porque yo soy un buen cantor".
Besides versatility, soneros had developed one last major aesthetic by the 1950s, in which the sonero "was an oral historian in a sense," says Tamargo. "You had to create this chronicle of what's happening every day." Pacheco echoes this idea: "Soneros sang about whatever happened in their town. Any type of event, they'd set it to music...but they never mixed their songs with politics." Examples of this range from sexually charged numbers like "El Yoyo" by Sexteto Habanero to serious songs like "Las Tumbas" by Ismael Rivera, where he sings about his time in the New York prison, the Tombs. Rubén Blades brought a socially conscious dimension to this part of sonero tradition, singing about fake people ("Plastico"), the oppressed masses in Latin America ("Pablo Pueblo") and the assassination of Archbishop Romero ("El Padre Antonio y el Monaguillo Andrés"). Few singers have followed him in this direction; one of the exceptions has been Willie Colón, who has recorded the humorous "Casanova", a sardonic look at a Don Juan Tenorio wannabe; the haunting "Oh, ¿Qué Será?", which explored some spirituality themes; and the moving "El Gran Varón", which focused on the tragedy of AIDS.
As the clothes and styles changed and the music went through a couple of name changes before ending up described by the highly polemic term of "salsa," soneros continued to be important figures. This continued until the mid 1980s. By then, salsa record sales had slumped, while merengue and pop baladas had become the big money makers.
Personal and professional problems had brought down several great soneros, including Rivera and Héctor Lavoe. Salsa needed a transfusion of youngbloods to keep it alive, both in terms of musicians and audience. The younger Latinos, more Americanized than their parents, were listening to rap, R&B and pop music.
Thus romance and sex, two eternal marketing tools, revived salsa and simultaneously helped begin the decline of the traditional sonero. Soon almost all salsa songs were about love, and singers appeared with high voices suited for these romantic songs, singing in what Tamargo calls "a frigid and mechanical way. There isn't even the slightest level of improvisation." Style began to win out over substance, and in some cases, over language. Young singers of Latino descent who can barely speak Spanish and had only the vaguest concept of clave were trying their luck at Latin music, and doing well despite their musical and linguistic shortcomings. Pacheco points out that today, veteran soneros like Adalberto Santiago and Tito Allen often are employed to write down soneos for younger singers because these singers can't improvise.
Another aesthetic, versatility, also is gone, says Tamargo, because "the salsa romántica people only sing salsa romántica." Instead of a variety of rhythms, most salsa singers today only offer eight love songs per album that all sound the same, period. Many of the young singers know next to nothing about the music itself and wouldn't know Cortijo from Kenny G. Pacheco says he has a hard time telling modern singers apart because they all have a similar high-pitched timbre, drastically different from the raspy, soulful voices of true soneros. In terms of social chronicling, another sonero aesthetic, salsa romántica albums are strictly about love and obviously offer little in that respect.
Overall, Tamargo feels that the spontaneous feeling and fire of the sonero "is a tradition that is fading." While he does like a couple of new singers, like Sandra Cepeda of Arte Mixto and the group Vocal Sampling, he's not impressed by most of the current crop of young singers. Pacheco is more optimistic, but cautiously so, saying that salsa music "is starting to change. I can hear it in the singing, they're starting to ad lib a little more."
And great soneros are far from gone, as evidenced by Oscar D'León, Celia Cruz and Cano Estremera. But the struggle between tradition and commercialism continues, as evidenced by a recent musical duel between sonero Israel Sardiñas and young rappers touring with the group Los Van Van. Tamargo says the raperos challenged Sardiñas during a number, and "Sardiñas swept the floor with them. Se los comió el león." Despite the victory in that battle, the war's outcome has yet to be determined. Who will win? Ultimately, as you gaze around the store, torn between buying Jerry Rivera's latest or an album by Beny Moré or Cheo Feliciano, your $15 may well be the deciding factor.
Recommended listening for those interested in soneros:
El Guajiro de Cunagua, by Abelardo Barroso and Sensación, ARO records
Barroso was one of the first soneros ever; these are the true roots of the music. Barroso's style was all groove, much like Beny More's. Rather than dazzle you with vocal fireworks, Abelardo just lays back and delivers the verses in a private groove removed from that of the band. His work is subtle and requires a lot of listening to appreciate it. But once you do, you'll have a better understanding of what a sonero truly is.
Comedia, by Héctor Lavoe, Fania Records
Classic album by a sonero who inflected the Cuban sonero tradition with Puerto Rican jíbaro-style singing, adding his own special version of pure P.R. soul. While not ready to detonate at all times like a Justo or a Cheo, Héctor had a deceptively hip style--totally natural, totally his--where he would at turns come up with something hilarious, a remarkable poetic phrase and, finally, a quote from a hip old song, making it fit into the song he was singing at the time. Underrated as a bolerista, making up what he may have lacked in ballad-caliber voice quality (Héctor had a bit of a nasal sound) with superb phrasing.
Cheo, by Cheo Feliciano, Fania Records
The 1972 comeback album of one of the greats. A true collector's item. Listen to Cheo transform the banal lyrics of "Si por mí llueve" into a tour de force. Besides always having something hip to say and being capable of exploding over a montuno at any time, Cheo always been exceptional at phrasing, turning words in new and amazing ways. Observe his variety of twists on the uptempo numbers and sublime efforts on the boleros.
Nostalgia con Tito Rodríguez, by Tito Rodríguez, Tico Records
A sonero who was smooth as silk while still being funky and creative. Tito didn't have a rough, up from the streets voice, and he understood that this wasn't for him. Instead of trying to sound like the other badasses out there, he forced the music to fit his voice, taking the Havana barrio sound of "Blen, Blen Blen" and delivering it in a stunning, completely modern way. Not an amazing improviser like the others on this list. He generally kept it simple, but with phrasing like he had, it didn't matter what he said—it ALL sounded good. Probably the greatest balladeer in the history of Latin music. Would take any of today's Latin pop ballad superstars—yes, even Luis Miguel with those powerful pipes—and shred them. Julio Iglesias is only fit to light Tito's cigarettes and make sure his glass is filled. So go buy it, I'm all out of superlatives for right now.
15 Exitos de Beny Moré, by Beny Moré, BMG
Okay, I lied. I have a few more superlatives left. How could I not when I'm talking about el Bárbaro del Ritmo? One of if not the best Cuban singer to ever pick up a microphone. Why? Enormous vocal range, brilliant phrasing (especially on boleros), smart, funny improvisations, and incredible versatility. Listen and learn grasshoppers, that's all I can say. (Marc Anthony, are you reading this? I hope so.)
Celia and Johnny, Fania Records
The Once and Future Queen. They say you should never say never, but I never listen. There will never, and to quote Chris Tucker in the movie Friday, EVEREVEREVEREVEREVEREVEREVEREVEREVER!!!! be a female singer in Latin music better than Celia. Period. Only Celeste Mendoza has a chance of hanging with her, and it's not a real good one. And she's not just a guarachera. "Vieja Luna" on this album shows her bolero abilities off nicely. Celia exemplifies the sonero aesthetics perfectly in every way. Be selective about her recordings though; she occasionally allows herself to record really bad songs. Stay away from anything with English titles on the songs; that music is simply toxic. However, almost everything she did with Pacheco was mind-blowing, and her work on Cuba y Puerto Rico Son with Puente hooked me onto this music like a crackhead.
Los Compadres, by Johnny Pacheco and Pete "Conde" Rodriguez, Fania Records
Down-home roots music featuring Pacheco's deceptively simple yet powerful sound backed by the strong vocals of el Conde, another wonderful sonero. Pete has a classic style, funky and economical. Not a vocal powerhouse, but more of a groove singer in the Barroso tradition. Awesome voice and a fantastic improviser. Like many of the greats, he's deep. Listen to him a few times and you'll see what I mean.
Pa' Bravo Yo, by Justo Betancourt, Fania Records
Perhaps the greatest living sonero; this is Justo in his prime. He shows a deft touch on boleros, and explodes over tracks like "Pa' Bravo Yo." My favorite track is "Óyeme Cantar." Only two minutes long, but that's plenty of time for Justo to conduct his own sonero clinic. Check out his riffs after the mambo when he starts getting into it. It can't be taught, but you can get at least get an idea of how it should be done.
Lo Último en la Avenida, Ismael Rivera and Kako, Tico Records
Maelo shows why they called him "El Sonero Mayor" on this album, wowing you with sones, guarachas, and guaguancós, all of them full of masterful phrasing and brilliant timing. Notice how he sings over the montuno at times and his slick use of repetition, not to mention his often hilarious improvisations. Also shows off his ability to sing any Latin rhythm.
Yeah yeah, I know I'm missing a lot of people. Let me see if I can squeeze in a few more mentions:
Miguelito Cuní--another legend, featured mostly with Félix Chapottín's conjunto. Raw, rough and edgy—pure Cuban old school funk.
Tito Gómez--from Orquesta Riverside, another monster. Their 1950s and 1960s recordings show off Tito's vocal skills.
Roberto Faz--another beast. His solo albums are all great. No fireworks, but a nice pocket and lots of flavor. Surprisingly good bolerista with sneaky hip soneos.
Ismael Quintana--underrated and superb. Best featured on Eddie Palmieri's 1960s recordings like Molasses, Superimposition, and more.
Adalberto Santiago--killer diller, very classic style. Sounds Cuban but is puré boricua, baby. Jump on his recordings with Ray Barretto like Hard Hands and Que Viva la Música as well as his Típica 73 works like Típica 73 and La Candela.
Chamaco Ramirez--had a hip Puerto Rican flavor, superb with up tempo numbers but not a great bolerista. Get Planté Bandera with Tommy Olivencia and you'll see why Chamaco was the man back in the day.
Marvin Santiago--Grab those old Bobby Valentin albums like Rompecabezas and Soy Boricua so you can witness the fitness of this hardcore sonero. You can thank me later.