Omara Portuondo Biography
Started Out in Chorus Line, Except for United States Toured World, Featured in Duet in Film
The elegant vocalist Omara Portuondo, nearly 70 years old at the time, was the only female artist showcased in the successful Buena Vista Social Club album and film that reintroduced classic Cuban music to American audiences in the late 1990s. It wasn't only because she was a woman that Portuondo stood out, however. In contrast to the Afro-Cuban roots music made by the other Buena Vista Social Club stars, Portuondo brought to life a different kind of Cuban song, one with a thoroughly romantic spirit and with a strong influence from American jazz and pop. "In Cuba we have always had the opportunity to get to know many parts of the world, the music of South America, North America, Latin America. I take the best from everywhere," Portuondo told San Diego Union-Tribune writer Andrew Gilbert through an interpreter (she speaks Spanish in interviews).
Portuondo was born in 1930 in the modest but musically rich Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana, Cuba. Her parents were an odd and fairly controversial couple for the time: her mother was a high-born woman of Spanish descent who was expected to marry a man of similar background but instead chose an Afro-Cuban baseball star. Neither was particularly musical, but sometimes they sang romantic duets around the house. Portuondo's father had been a schoolmate of Cuban song composer Ernesto Grenet, and musicians and artists were always welcome in the household.
Started Out in Chorus Line
A silent type, Portuondo was a reluctant performer at first. Her sister Haydee became a member of the chorus line at Havana's Tropicana Club, and when Omara was 15 she was asked to join as well after another dancer fell ill. "I was very shy and ashamed to show my legs," Portuondo recalled to Rob Adams of Scotland's Glasgow Herald. "Then my mother said, 'Do it for me. You'll see, one day you'll represent your country all over the world with your art.'" Portuondo, despite her shyness, had closely studied the dancers' routines in rehearsal and had no trouble picking up their steps.
She and Haydee soon began doing a vocal-harmony act in Havana's nightclubs as well, performing American songs for the throngs of tourists who came to the city for a taste of the tropical life. Portuondo began to perform as lead vocalist with a group called Loquibambla Swing, fronted by a blind pianist named Frank Emilio Flynn. That group, appearing daily on Cuban radio, pioneered a new style called filín that merged Cuban sounds with jazz and Brazilian bossa nova music. Portuondo began to find favor among Cuban audiences, who dubbed her "La novia del filín"—the fiancee of feeling.
In 1952, Portuondo formed the group Cuarteto las d'Aida with her sister Haydee, Elena Bourke, and Moraima Secada. The group took its name from pianist and director Aida Diestro, but another key creative contributor was Cuban jazzman Chico O'Farrill, who wrote many of their vocal arrangements. Cuarteto las d'Aida toured the United States and Europe beginning in 1957, and Portuondo released a solo album, Magía Negra, in 1959. Two years later, the rising career of Cuarteto las d'Aida was blocked by the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba assisted by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the subsequent Cuban missile crisis showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. Relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated, and Portuondo, a supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, returned to her homeland. Her sister remained in the United States.
Except for United States Toured World
Unlike the other musicians featured in the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, Portuondo was a longtime star. "Omara is a legend in Cuba, and it's safe to say there's no one of my age who didn't grow up under her influence," 31-year-old Cuban-born ballet dancer Carlos Acosta told Jenny Gilbert of the London (England) Independent. Portuondo headlined shows at the Tropicana. She worked with some of Cuba's top musicians, including future Gloria Estefan arranger Juanito Marquez. America was off limits to Portuondo, but she toured both Western and Eastern Europe with the Orquesta Aragón, a legendary Cuban dance band.
The music Portuondo made as a solo artist showed the cultural influences with which she had grown up; her shows often included a Spanish translation of George and Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love." Her specialties were the Latin song genres known as son and bolero—romantic ballads centered on the themes of love, memory, and loneliness. Not an explosive salsa singer like her contemporary Celia Cruz, Portuondo was a classic vocal stylist sometimes compared to the melancholy American jazz diva Billie Holiday or the French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Portuondo married and divorced; her son, Ariel, became her manager.
Omara, a documentary film about her career, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in France in 1986. By the early 1990s, Portuondo's schedule had slowed down a bit, but the Buena Vista Social Club projects brought her a whole new generation of admirers. Her involvement with the group came about after its organizer and producer, slide guitarist and world music enthusiast Ry Cooder, heard her on a visit to Havana in the mid-1990s. As Cooder brought together his group of aging Cuban musicians at Cuba's state-owned Egrem studios in 1996, Portuondo happened to be recording a new album of her own in the same building. Bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, Portuondo recalled to Adams, "looked in on me and said: 'We need a female voice for a duet with Compay Segundo, why don't you do it?'" The 66-year-old Portuondo thought, "'What, a love duet with that old guy?' I hadn't seen him for years."
Featured in Duet in Film
For her duet with Segundo, which appeared on the Buena Vista Social Club album, Portuondo chose a song called "Veinte Años" that she had originally learned from her parents years before. On the soundtrack of the Buena Vista Social Club film (1998) directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, however, she was featured in a different duet: in "Silencio," her duet partner Ibrahim Ferrer was seen using a handkerchief to wipe away a tear that fell from her face. After the film won an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature, Portuondo became better known among U.S. audiences.
The Buena Vista Social Club projects proved to be much more than a last hurrah for Portuondo as well as for many of the other performers involved. In 2000 she launched her first U.S. tour since the Cuban missile crisis, and she performed frequently in the United States, Mexico, and Europe over the next five years. Her 2004 album Flor de Amor saw her undertaking new experiments with Brazilian sounds, and she showed no signs of being ready to retire. "What we are doing is so much full of love …," Portuondo told Washington Post writer Richard Harrington as she reflected on her new popularity and that of her compatriots. "Love moves the world, and in our case we love so much what we are doing, that's probably the main secret of our success."
Magía Negra, 1959 (reissued Vedisco, 1997).
Soy cubana, Artex, 1993.
Palabras, Intuition, 1996.
(with other artists) Buena Vista Social Club, World Circuit, 1996.
(with Chucho Valdes) Desafinos, Intuition, 1999.
Buena Vista Social Club Presents: Omara Portuondo, Elektra/Asylum, 2000.
Omara Portuondo: Roots of Buena Vista, Egrem, 2000.
Dos Gardenias, Tumi, 2001.
La gran Omara Portuondo, Egrem, 2002.
Flor de Amor, World Circuit, 2004.
Omara (documentary), 1983.
Buena Vista Social Club (documentary), 1999.
Boston Globe, July 30, 2004, p. C13.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 29, 2004, p. 23.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.), May 1, 2004, p. 3.
Independent (London, England), April 16, 2004, p. 18; June 6, 2004, Features section, p. 5.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 17, 2002, p. E1.
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 28, 2002, Night & Day section, p. 9; October 30, 2003, Night & Day section, p. 19.
Washington Post, October 20,. 2000, p. N15.
"Omara Portuondo," AfroCubaWeb, http://www.afrocubaweb/portuondo.htm (April 22, 2005).
"Omara Portuondo," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 22, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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