Jerry Rivera has stayed offstage for the past year, taking a turn that may surprise those who have followed his voice since he was the youngest salsa singer in the world. The pupil and undisputed heir of erotic salsa pioneer Lalo Rodriguez, Rivera risks losing the salsa faithful he has won over an eleven-year career by courting the fickle fans of the romantic ballad. Precisely because the ballad boasts more radio stations and higher record sales than tropical genres, a proliferation of artists have hitched their careers to Cupid's bow. Now releasing a self-titled CD (always a sure sign of an established artist's effort to woo an unfamiliar audience) that displays the handsome singer in a sensual pose, Rivera has thrown himself into the wine-and-roses world of the pop ballad.
Rivera's decision to make himself over with a new record label -- BMG Latin -- in a genre where he is unknown was a gamble. When he began recording, producer Bebu Silvetti assured him that if the disc does not sell more than a million copies, he would refund to the singer all the money invested in the production. When the recording was complete, Silvetti said he had made a mistake. "Now," he told Rivera, "I would dare to double that amount."
At a time when the ballad is outstripping salsa in the U.S. market, this might seem an opportunistic move. The detour in Rivera's trajectory, however, could also be seen as the realization of a dream the former prodigy has long cherished. When he was fifteen years old, his vocal prowess opened doors for him in the salsa world and brought him opportunities he could not pass up, leaving him no alternative but to follow in the footsteps of the romantic salseros Eddy Santiago and Rodriguez. Salsa chose Rivera without asking his permission. Without a doubt he owes to salsa what he is today, and he would not dare to say he would abandon the dance genre altogether.
Ironically it was Rodriguez who impressed upon Rivera the importance of personal style. On a recent afternoon in Miami, Rivera recalls the salsero telling him: "You have to hear yourself in your mind until the voice that you desire comes out. It's much more difficult to imagine a style than it is to produce one. If you make yourself a singer in your thoughts, and you recognize your unique stamp in your own mind, then you will achieve that sound with your throat."
Rivera did not achieve his style immediately; rather it came through long discipline. "The vocal technique is developed over the years," he explains. "To sing like someone else is not difficult. What really is hard is to manipulate your own voice in order to communicate who you are." In the ballad Rivera rediscovered the fascination he felt as a child watching his father play guitar. His father's fingers seemed magically to draw music from the metal strings. Rivera hopes to find that same magic in his voice.
Rivera is not a composer. Unlike other singers, who generate myths out of the visions they transmit in their songs (Ricardo Arjona and Joaquin Sabina, for example) or who present themselves as sex symbols (in the style of Enrique Iglesias), Rivera's full force is found in his voice. Running through scales and improvising movements, Rivera believes he has arrived at a point where, he says, "When I want to, I vibrate. When I don't want to, I don't. I vibrate in the upper register. I vibrate slowly. I vibrate fast. I control the pulse of my voice to graduate the intensity of the sentiment through distinct harmonies and tones."
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It was his voice that led him to the ballad, with its sensual charge and all-encompassing melody that transforms music into desire, into a game of flesh and longing. The ballad achieves a greater intimacy than even the most romantic salsa. When salsa sings of love, it does so in a gregarious mood that is more narrative than lyrical. Salsa's lyrics do not focus so much on interior sensations as on recounting what happens in the life of the lovers.
"In ballad," Rivera clarifies, "the voice is the most important instrument. It's right up front, and the slightest error is evident. In salsa the rhythm leads the way." Eager to put his voice to the test, Rivera first attempted the ballad at a show in the Universal Theater in Los Angeles, where he adapted a potpourri of his salsa hits as pop ballads. Inspired by the warm response of the audience, he decided to become a different kind of singer, without completely breaking from the genre that made him a star. On Jerry Rivera he resorts to the increasingly common practice of pleasing two masters by including both a ballad and a salsa version of the song "Quiero." The disc as a whole alternates between the gentle rhythm of "Tú" and the nostalgic pitch of the standout track, "Fingir" ("Pretend"); between the sensuality of the ultraslow "Por Qué" and the pop explosions of "Caramelito."
When asked if he is convinced that he has found himself in the ballad, Rivera smiles and says, "Listen." His answer is supported by the ballads themselves, where his voice is an instrument perfectly pitched to the genre's emotional depths. Indeed if it's true that the United States has lost another salsero to the lucrative ballad market, in this case listeners benefit from the bargain.