for a genre
When you work in an art form that has grown, flourished and thinned out, you can be both in it and above it; you can explain its importance and demonstrate its vitality at the same time.
Hermán Olivera, a singer with Puerto Rican roots, is a sonero. He’s part of a nearly century-old tradition of improvising vocalists in Afro-Latin music; it produced, before the commercial incursion of salsa romantica in the mid-’80s, several peaks in Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York, through the voices of singers like Benny Moré, Ismael Rivera, Celia Cruz and Héctor Lavoe. All of those names enter the lyrics of “La Voz del Caribe,” Olivera’s new album; it’s a kind of textbook for his genre, mapping out the aims and dimensions of his art and making it happen.
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“El Son de Hermán” explains his art – the discipline of rhyme, the rule of not repeating yourself – but “El Heredero del Sabor” makes his case. “I am the heir,” he sings in Spanish, “of the great soneros I carry in my heart.” He goes through them individually, with a detail about what each imparted to him; they include Lavoe, Rivera, and Chamaco Ramirez.
The improvisations, in the second half of these songs – about love, family, the economy and music – are the stars of the record. The brass section and the regular rhythmic grid of written lyrics falls away, and there’s Olivera over the rhythm section, stretching out a few syllables or navigating lots of them, in a back-and-forth with a vocal chorus. But whether he’s making up lyrics or not, he swings each line, and makes the shape of the melody sound determined on the spot, dragging against the beat and ending each stanza with a light shake.
Ben Ratliff, New York Times