She is the undisputed Afro-Puerto Rican Queen of Salsa and a role model for emerging salseros and salseras. Furthermore, she is the only woman who played a significant role in La Sonora Ponceña’s long and illustrious trajectory.
Yolanda Rivera was born in Ponce in 1951 and grew up in a large musical family. At eight, through her sister, a Cuban music aficionado, she met her idol, Celeste Mendoza (“La Reina del Guaguanco”) and grew up absorbing a broad range of Cuban and Puerto Rican music including Los Van Van, Los Papines, Cachao, Ismael Rivera, Chamaco Rivera, and Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez to name a few.
She 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 back-up (coro) singer.
In 1975, Rivera returned to Puerto Rico. After a stint with the group Roberto y su Chango, she debuted as a lead singer on Orquesta Terrfica’s Sabor a Pueblo (1976).
In the late 70s, just days before boarding a flight to New York, Rivera encountered La Sonora Ponceña’s founder and leader, Don Quique Lucca, and mentioned, “If I don’t find work. I’m leaving for New York!” Shortly after that, Don Quique invited her to his home, handed her a cassette tape, and said, “Learn these songs.” She did, and the rest is history.
Under the direction of Don Quique and his son Papo Lucca, Rivera became an indispensable member of La Sonora Poncena. Also, she recorded eight memorable albums including Explorando (1978), Energized (1979), La Ceiba (with Celia Cruz, 1979), Unchained Force (1980), and Night Raider (1981).
In 1984 Rivera gave birth to a daughter with a severe disability. After seeking several opinions in Puerto Rico and finding the diagnosis unacceptable, she moved to Miami, where her daughter underwent a series of surgeries and treatments and made a full recovery.
In 1986, Rivera appeared with Gambino Pampini’s, Fuerza Noble orchestra. Also, between 1988 and 1989, she recorded three albums with Ruddy Haddock including De Puerto Rico Bailable y Mas (1988), Otra Vez (1988), and Salsa Tropical (1990).
In 1995 she reunited with La Sonora Ponceña and appeared on the album, Apretando. Also, on the percussionist, Wendell Rivera’s album Portfolio, which is notable for the song, Vuelvo a Cantar, where Rivera proclaims her triumphant return.
In 2000, La Sonora Ponceña celebrated its 56th Anniversary with the release of the album, Y Seguimos Haciendo Historia and 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 shared the stage with Adalberto Santiago, Tito Allen, and Ray de la Paz on Ray Barretto’s 50th Anniversary.
In 2009, Rivera 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 (now classic) anthem, Borinquen. Also, her stunning white outfit, which doubled as a Puerto Rican flag.
In 2013, Rivera released her first and only highly acclaimed production as a leader, La Hija de Guaguanco (Melaza Records). The album was well-received in the Caribbean and Latin America but, didn’t receive the airplay and recognition it deserved in the U.S. (currently out-of-print and difficult to find).
In 2019, I enjoyed seeing Rivera (for the first time) and La Sonora Ponceña perform at Lehman College in the Bronx. Before a full house, the group, and special guest, tresero Nelson Gonzalez performed the hit after hit and ignited the room received several well-deserved standing ovations.
I recently caught up with Rivera on Facebook, where she maintains an active online presence (Yolanda Rivera Oficial). The conversation was brief, but I learned about two independent productions that are not commercially available. The album, 46, and the single, El Moño.
Rivera’s 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 career that spans fifty-years plus, Rivera has seen and done it all. She survived racism, sexism, vicious rumors, and the trials and tribulations of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Today, Rivera is revered throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the U.S. for her body of work as a soloist, sidewoman, member of La Sonora Ponceña, and cultural ambassador. Long live La Dama de la Salsa!
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.
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© 2020 Tomas Pena
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