Upon hearing Marvin Santiago’s El Sonero del Pueblo for the first time, I really didn’t know what to make out of it. Marvin’s vocal style is raw, probably too raw for most casual Salsa listeners. But his ability to improvise and to cram every word and syllable in between a choro is hard for anyone to match. Ruben Blades put it best when describing Marvin Santiago’s style: "Marvin is capable of fitting a Mack truck into a parking space where a Volkswagen Beetle won't fit." His raspy voice and lyrical improvisational skills are closer to Reggaeton star Tego Calderon than to someone like Eddie Santiago.
El Sonero Del Pueblo (The People’s Sonero, which was also his moniker), originally released in 1985, is a collection of Marvin’s best material that he recorded for the TH Rodven label. His voice, rough from years of improper vocal training, sounds, as Neil Young once put it, “As real as the day was long.” The recordings that he made for TH Roven sound like the meters on the recording console are peaking deep in the red. The slightly overdriven sound of the band matches the intensity of Santiago’s voice, which is a good thing. It’s like the Salsa version of Black Flag’s The First Four Years. Like that release, El Sonero Del Pueblo is filled with fast songs full of intensity, often layered with humor.
Songs Such as "El Pasajero" (The Passenger) and "Caro Viejo Y Mujer Fea" (Old Car And An Ugly Women) were Salsa Dura classics before there was a term for it. On top of that, try to keep up with Marvin’s thick improvised Puerto Rican colloquialisms. This is one for the dance floor as much as for the people that like to sit and enjoy great musicianship and vocal ability.
El Sonero Del Pueblo captures a period before Marvin was briefly imprisoned on cocaine changes. He recorded another classic, Adentro (Inside) while still in prison. During his stay, he became a born-again Christian. Sadly, times had changed while he was locked up. Hard Salsa gave way to the mostly god-awful Salsa Romantica sound and Merengue became the flavor of the day for most Puerto Ricans. Still, Marvin plugged away, influencing many singers and musicians, until his death in 2004, due to complication with Diabetes.
In retrospect, Marvin was way ahead of his time. He not only influenced the newer Salsa groups that came out of Colombia, Venezuela and New York, but many Reggaeton artists as well. One could say that if Reggaeton came from the streets of Puerto Rico, then it’s got a little Sonero Del Pueblo in it too.