¡Puro sabor! A Christmas recording from the fertile black earth of Puerto Rico, “Feliz Navidad” is dressed in urban New York chic; sporting a funky backbeat to the abundance of bombas expressed here by none other than El Sonero Mayor (the master singer), Ismael Rivera (also known as Maelo).

Aside from the guaracha, son montuno and boleros, “Feliz Navidad” swings heavy with native bombas, sica style, that run from the oxen-driven “Quiero A Mi Pueblo” by Bobby Capó to the salsa steppin’ “Bomba de Navidad” by friend and producer Louie Ramírez. Overshadowed during its time by Willie Colón’s 1972 and still popular Asalto Navideño, Maelo’s “Feliz Navidad” sports a more religious holiday icon on its cover—a photo of a miniature porcelain nativity. The back boasts a summertime photo of Maelo in action by the popular flasher of that time and former priest Dominique, who captured the artist from below the stage at the Central Park bandshell in New York during one of his performances. Creating an arched effect behind him, fans also were captured bunched up in the middle of the curve, Afro-style hair do’s tracing dark halos against the clear blue sky. Why not? Maelo represented Puerto Rico where Christmas is warm as much as he represented cold New York winters.

Unlike the more urban mixed with jíbaro (country) style of Colón, Maelo’s Christmas is more African-rooted with the funk beat bass of Andy González providing a New York anchor and a touch of rock from the electric guitars of Vinnie Bell and Steve Monge. Maelo also keeps it real. Listen to how he describes “Mi Tía María”, who never drinks, except during Christmas when she gets blasted with all her friends on moonshine she keeps under her bed. Maelo improvizes on the different things she uses to cure her speculating on: ron con pasa, ron con caña, ron con berro, ron con carne. The man could truly flow. Capo’s “Quiero A Mi Pueblo”, for example, takes a bomba sica, replaces the maraca with a güiro, describes the joy of Puerto Rico at Christmas and mixes a verse from the religious chants of the Fiestas de Cruz into a clave/cua format that’s danceable, emotional, joyful and on another level, spiritually appreciative for all of it. An electric guitar riff comps in the background, wah-wahing into the setting that details the party process in Puerto Rico during the holidays.

Maelo knows wassup as he goes through his love for parrandas, cuchifritos, ron and coquito followed by un buen jalaito (a good drag). You can taste Puerto Rico in Joe Blanco’s “Vengo Del Campo”. From its deep, rich soil to the aroma of its freshly brewed coffee, Maelo, who is proud of being from the countryside, has fun singing for us. “Seis De Borinquen” by fellow writer Ramon Muñiz continues the Boricua smorgasbord of savory flavors, sounds and colors. Lyrically lucid, rhythmically moving, while culturally and racially empowering, this is an emotional hair-raiser. C. Curet Alonso’s “Una Tarjeta Postal” is an sensitively descriptive lament for a lost love always longed for around the holidays. Meanwhile Javier Vazquez’s “Llego Navidad” is a laid-back holiday salute to all our brother nations and is trombone heavy, using Barry Rodgers’ technique. “Navidad De Nuevo” by Maelo’s compadre and Cortijo alum Sammy Ayala, keeps up the smooth, romantic holiday feeling in this Christmas bolero.

In his inimitable style, New York’s own Louie Ramírez closes the circle with this tasty, upbeat “Bomba De Navidad” he penned and arranged. This song is at once coy and danceable in a folkloric and dancehall format. Modeling a medley of Jingle Bells and Silent Night on a celeste during the mambo, this tune, along with the rest of the recording, brings us the best aguilnaldo of the Three Magis—the gift of music mixed with history.

Credits: Ismael Rivera – Leader, Small Percussion Larry Spencer -Trumpet Barry Rogers – Trombone Joe Blanco – Piano Carlos A. Malcon – Timbales Steve Monge -Guitar Victor González – Bongo Pedro González – Saxophone Carlos Ayala – Güiro Andy González – Bass Johnny Ross – Conga Vinnie Bell – Guitar Lead Singer – Ismael Rivera Chorus – Adalberto Santiago, Ruben Blades, Yayo El Indio, Carlos Ayala Producer – Louie Ramírez Recorded at – Generation Sound, New York City Engineer – Gretchen Zoeckler Original Album Photo- Dominique Original Album Design – Yogi Rosario

Written by Aurora Flores.