"El Niño Bonito de la Salsa"
Written by Francesca Franco
It’s late at night, and a scrawny kid carries a conga as big as himself down a snowy street. He slips, falls on the conga, then slowly gets up, grabs his conga, and starts the trudge up the six flights of stairs to his apartment. So begins the story of Ismael Miranda, legendary salsa singer and pioneer in creating the genre of salsa music, aka Latin Jazz.
Okay, so technically he’d been singing for a long time before this particular day with the conga, even performing in a couple of bands, but it wasn’t until the conga that things really started happening for him. He began singing when he was 8. By 11, he was taking lessons, and by 14 he was playing and singing with various groups. That’s when a teacher told him about a local group that was looking for a conga player, and young Ismael jumped at the opportunity, “I quickly told him I was the best conga player,” and he auditioned. It worked. He was asked to rehearse with the group, and, a short time later, to join Benny Ortiz’s orchestra. Thus enters the giant, unwieldy, aqua blue conga, “I wanted to buy a fiberglass conga … my first professional instrument, and, with my mother’s help, I was able to,” he says. “I loved it, even though it weighed more than me!” It was also more than just a simple musical instrument. It represented opportunity. “My passion for singing has been with me all my life, but in those times, if you were able to play an instrument and sing, it was much easier to find work.”
Another thing that made it easier was the ability to write and compose his own music, although that too was a bit of a climb, “At first, it was very difficult to write songs because I spoke more English than Spanish,” he says. “But I believe God had that gift, that blessing, for me.”
Since then, it’s been 45 years of singing, bands, orchestras, performances, movies (he was in El Cantante with Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony), music, and, of course, congas. His most treasured gift, after all these years, has been the time he gets to share with his fans. “The most rewarding part of my career is performing in concert and being able to share with the public,” he says. “That’s the biggest blessing I’ve been able to have as an artist: Knowing that you’re loved by thousands of people, and, at the same time, being able to share that love with them.”
And the most difficult part? “The biggest challenge has been to keep myself relevant for 45 years,” he says. “It’s not easy, but I’ve always believed that when God gives you blessings and talent, He does so for life. … For me, the difficulties have been important and necessary. It’s what’s kept me with the desire to move forward, to keep fighting for what I love, and keep working for the fans, and the people who have put me where I am today. … My inspiration, and motivation, has always been the ability to bring joy to all the places I go, and that made it easier to bear the heavy loads that, very often, my work entails.”
Looking ahead, it’s more than just music that he hopes to share with the world. Joy and love are top on the list. From new recordings (he’s aiming for three records this year, one of which will be an album of Salsa music in English), to completing construction on a center of all things Ismael Miranda related, he’d like to pay forward the love and gifts he’s been given in life. “Through the blessings that God has given me, I feel as though I have the opportunity to help the many people that He’s put in m path. … Helping others is one way of giving thanks.”