YOLANDA RIVERA is the Undisputed Afro-Puerto Rican Queen of Salsa, a role model for emerging salseros and salseras, and the only woman who played a lead role in La Sonora Ponceña’s long and illustrious trajectory.
She was born in Ponce in 1951 to a large musical family. At eight, through her sister, a Cuban music aficionado and seamstress, Yolanda met her idol, Celeste Mendoza (“La Reina del Guaguanco”). “She came to my house and gave me an LP. She was a wonderful dancer, singer, and influence.” Other significant influences include Los Van Van, Los Papines, Israel Cachao Lopez, Ismael Rivera, Chamaco Rivera, and Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez.
Yolanda launched her career in Ponce in 1968, with the local group, Roberto y La Nueva Ley. One year later, she and her brother moved to New York. Shortly after that, she joined Willie Rosario’s orchestra as a backup (coro) singer.
In 1975, Yolanda returned to Puerto Rico. After a stint with the group Roberto y su Chango, she debuted as the lead singer on Orquesta Terrfica’s Sabor a Pueblo (1976).
In the late 70s, just days before hopping a flight to New York, Yolanda encountered La Sonora Ponceña’s founder and leader, Don Quique Lucca on the street, and remarked, “If I don’t find work soon, I’m leaving for New York!” Shortly after that, Don Quique invited Yolanda to his home, handed her a cassette tape, and said, “Learn these songs.” And, she did! Under the direction of Don Quique and his son Papo Lucca, Rivera became an indispensable member of La Sonora Ponceña and recorded eight memorable albums with the ensemble, including Explorando (1978), Energized (1979), La Ceiba (with Celia Cruz, 1979), Unchained Force (1980), and Night Raider (1981).
In 1984 Yolanda gave birth to a daughter with a severe disability. After seeking several opinions in Puerto Rico and finding the diagnosis unacceptable, she put her career on hold for approximately two years and moved to Miami, where her daughter underwent a series of critical surgeries and recovered.
In 1986, Yolanda appeared with Gambino Pampini’s, Fuerza Noble Orchestra. Also, between 1988 and 1989, she recorded three albums with bandleader Ruddy Haddock including De Puerto Rico Bailable y Mas (1988), Otra Vez (1988), and Salsa Tropical (1990).
In 1995 Yolanda reunited with La Sonora Ponceña and appeared on the album, Apretando. The same year she appeared on Wendell Rivera’s album titled Portfolio, which is notable for the song, Vuelvo a Cantar, whose lyrics proclaim her triumphant return to the music scene.
In 2000, La Sonora Ponceña celebrated its 56th Anniversary and released the album, Y Seguimos Haciendo Historia, which featured a variety of singers including Yolanda, Hector “Pichie” Perez, Willie Colon, Danny Davila, Luigi Texidor, Ismael Miranda, Cano Estremera, and Andy Montañez among others. Also, in 2001, she celebrated Ray Barretto’s 50th Anniversary with Adalberto Santiago, Tito Allen, and Ray de la Paz.
In 2009, Yolanda and Adalberto Santiago received lifetime achievement awards. Also, La Sonora Ponceña celebrated its 55th Anniversary. A highlight of the event was Rivera’s interpretation of the classic Puerto Rican anthem, Borinquen, and a white outfit, which doubled as a Puerto Rican flag.
In 2013, Yolanda released La Hija de Guaguanco (Melaza Records), her first production as a leader. The album was well-received in the Caribbean and Latin America but, did not receive the airplay, or the recognition it deserved in the U.S. (the record is currently out of print).
In 2019, I had the pleasure of seeing Yolanda perform with La Sonora Ponceña at Lehman College in the Bronx. Before a full house, the group, and master tresero Nelson Gonzalez performed Sonora’s hits, ignited the room, and received several well-deserved standing ovations.
Recently, I caught up with Yolanda on Facebook, where she maintains an active presence (Yolanda Rivera Oficial). The conversation was brief, but I learned about two independent productions that are only available through Yolanda’s Facebook page: The album, 46, and a single titled, El Moño.
Some of Rivera’s memorable hits include Ahora Si, Hasta Que Se Rompe El Cuero, Se Formo, La Rumba en el Patio, Madrugando, Borinquen and, Lo Mio Es Cantar (Borinquen is her personal favorite).
In a 2014 interview, Yolanda was asked, “If you were born again, what would you do?” “Sing!, she eagerly replied. When asked, what she wouldn’t do, she quickly answered, “Not get married!”
In a career that spans fifty years and counting, Yolanda has experienced it all. She survived racism, sexism, spousal abuse, vicious rumors, and the trials and tribulations of being a strong woman in a male-dominated industry. According to Yolanda, “It was hard. You have to demonstrate who you are, how you are, and what you’re capable of. This is not to say there weren’t incidents but, “Ay Que Braviar, Ay Que Guapiar!” On occasion, I’ve had to put some people in their place but overall, I’ve been lucky.”
In a recent interview with radio show host, Nando Alvarrici Yolanda announced she is semi-retired bu remains open to the idea of making one last recording that celebrates her fifty-year trajectory.
Today, “Yolandita” is revered throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the U.S. for her unique vocal style, her body of work as a soloist, side woman and her long-standing standing affiliation with La Sonora Ponceña. Long live Yolanda Rivera, La Sonora Mas Querida!
In 2019, a representative of the show Isla Caribe interviewed Yolanda Rivera. See the full interview here. Also, in this video, Yolanda talks about her daughter’s illness and why she left La Sonora Ponceña.
- Alvarrici, Nando – Con Sabor Latino (99.5 FM) – Interview: Yolanda River
- Cantrell, David – Research, Recordings.
- Isla Caribe Podcast #40 – Interview: Yolanda Rivera
- Rivera, Yolanda – Pagina Oficial (Facebook)
- Swing Antillano Con Saoco – Porque Se Va De La Sonora? (Interview, November 2014)
© 2020 Tomas Pena
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