- Christina Jaspars
- Youri Lenquette
- Thursday, June 24, 2010
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo US Tour Opener Canceled; Remaining Shows Go On As Scheduled
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, featuring Omara Portuondo, was due to kick off a three-city US tour in Brooklyn's Prospect Park tonight. Unfortunately, the performance has been canceled due to visa delays. Instead, a special outdoor screening of Wim Wenders’ classic documentary Buena Vista Social Club will take place. The remainder of the tour, at Ravinia and the Hollywood Bowl, will take place as planned this weekend.
- Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Celebrate Brooklyn! to Feature Free Sets from Allen Toussaint, The Low Anthem, and Members of Buena Vista Social Club
Celebrate Brooklyn!—one of New York City's longest-running free, outdoor performing arts festivals—has announced the complete line-up for this summer's concert series in in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Among the featured performers this year are Allen Toussaint, The Low Anthem, and the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, featuring Omara Portuondo.
About Omara Portuondo
Omara Portuondo was born in Havana in October 1930. Her mother came from a rich Spanish family and was expected to marry into another "society" family. Instead she ran off with the man she loved, a tall, handsome baseball player from the Cuban national team. Moreover, he was black and in those days mixed race marriages were still frowned upon in Cuba. “My mother always hid the fact that she had married a black man. If they bumped into each other in the street they had to ignore each other, but at home they recreated what society denied them—a haven of peace and harmony. They loved each other very much,” Omara recalls.
They had three children and as in any Cuban household there was music. There wasn’t a gramophone—they didn’t have the money—but there were the voices of Omara’s parents, singing in the kitchen and as they went about their daily lives. She remembers their favorites included songs by Ernesto Grenet and Sindo Garay’s "La bayamesa." They were her first informal singing lessons and the songs remain in her repertoire to this day.
When her older sister Haydee became a dancer at the famous cabaret Tropicana, Omara soon followed her, albeit by accident. One day in 1945, the ballet troupe found itself short when a dancer dropped out two days before an important premiere. Omara had watched her sister rehearse so often that she knew all the steps and was asked to stand in. “It was a very chic cabaret but I said it was out of the question,” Omara recalls. “I was very shy and I was ashamed to show my legs.” Her mother told her that she couldn’t let them down and thus began a career as a dancer, forming a famous partnership with the dancer Rolando Espinosa; in 1961 Omara actually worked as a popular dance teacher at Art Instructors’ School. Until as recently as 1998 Omara would occasionally appear at the Tropicana cabaret, but as a special guest singer.
THE FIANCÉE OF FEELING
On weekends, Omara and Haydee would sing American jazz standards with a group of friends which included Cesar Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Mendez and the blind pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. They became known as Los Loquibambia, and the style they played, a Cubanized version of the bossa nova with American jazz influences, became known as "feeling" or "filin," as it was often written in Spanish. On their radio debut Omara was introduced as "Miss Omara Brown, the fiancée of filin." She is still known by many Cubans as "la novia del filin." Omara recalls that Cuban music around this time was influenced by the popular music from a variety of countries including Argentina, Brazil, and of course the United States.
By 1952, Omara and Haydee had formed a female vocal quartet with Elena Bourke and Moraima Secada, led by the pianist Aida Diestro. They were to become one of the most important groups in Cuban musical history and Omara was to remain with the Cuarteto Las D’Aida for 15 years. The original line-up only ever made a single album for RCA Victor in 1957. “We toured America and Aida’s vocal arrangements were very innovative. We were acclaimed everywhere and when Nat King Cole played the Tropicana we sang on stage with him,” Omara recalls.
THE SOLO CAREER
Her debut solo album, Magia Negra, appeared in 1959. It was an adventurous affair straddling Cuban music and American jazz, and included versions of "That Old Black Magic" and Duke Ellington’s "Caravan."
Even after the release of her solo album she remained with Las D’Aida, and two years later was with the group singing in a Miami hotel when the Cuban missile crisis caused the rupture in relations with America and began Cuba’s long period of isolation, they returned home immediately. She continued with Las D’Aida until 1967 when she left to pursue her solo career. “So many singers had gone into exile that there was a gap to be filled,” she says. Cuban culture took on greater significance and the arts were actively encouraged with the creation of various art and music schools. Many talented musicians emerged from these schools, and such artists gained a great deal of respect and status within society. Omara would represent Cuba performing at international festivals around the world as well as maintaining a high profile at home.
The early years after the revolution were difficult ones in Cuba’s history, cut-off from the west. In 1967, Omara remembers almost the entire Cuban population being conscripted in an attempt to break the sugar cane harvest record. “Everyone was participating to cut cane in the fields and as artists we were supporting the workers singing in the fields,” she recalls.
The '70s found her singing with the top charanga outfit, Orquesta Aragón. She travelled widely, appearing in various countries including France, Japan, Belgium, Finland, and Sweden. Omara made many recordings over the next two decades, among her best was an album she recorded with Adalberto Alvarez in 1984 and two albums, Palabras and Desafios (with Chucho Valdés) for the Spanish label Nubenegra in the early '90s.
BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB
In 1996, during the recording of the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, Omara was invited to sing a bolero, and she chose "Veinte años." She sang it together with Compay Segundo, and it became one of the highlights of the album. Omara had only a few hours to record the track, as the very next day she was off on tour to Vietnam.
There’s a profound moment in Wim Wenders’ film Buena Vista Social Club when Omara Portuondo and Ibrahim Ferrer have just finished singing the heartbreakingly beautiful "Silencio." The song says that if the flowers in her garden see her sadness they will surely wither and die. As they take the applause, a tear forms in Omara’s eye. Ibrahim removes his handkerchief from his pocket and gently wipes away the tear. It is Wenders’ favorite scene for the way it captures the romance of Cuban music in a single frame. Often dubbed Cuba’s very own Edith Piaf, Omara Portuondo has been thrilling different audiences in the cabarets and night spots of Havana. The passionate and moving honesty of her voice made her beloved figure in Cuban music. Yet like Ibrahim Ferrer, she had to wait until the Buena Vista album to enjoy wider international recognition.
Omara went on to become part of the legendary Buena Vista performances in Amsterdam and at New York’s Carnegie Hall and appeared on the follow-up album, Buena Vista Social Club presents … Ibrahim Ferrer.
A NEW ERA
In 2000, World Circuit / Nonesuch released Buena Vista Social Club presents … Omara Portuondo, the third release in the series and an album that finally placed her expressive voice centerstage. Omara recorded with a dream backing band, which included Buena Vista musicians Rubén González, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, and Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, and featured guest appearances from Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo, Manuel Galbán, and Ibrahim Ferrer.
The album was met with great acclaim and led to Omara's embarking on a world tour with fellow Buena Vista stars Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer, giving a whole new generation of fans the opportunity to see this illustrious trio live in concert.
Omara returned to the road in 2002 with an extensive solo world tour, playing numerous dates across North America and Europe. That autumn she played the Jazz Festival in Japan, singing onstage with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, John Patitucci, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Pérez. In 2003, her European summer festival dates included an amazing headlining appearance at the One World stage of the legendary Glastonbury Festival in the UK. She then went on to tour in Canada and the US in the autumn of 2003 together with her band which included such talented musicians as Papi Oviedo on tres, Rolando Baro on piano, and Fabian Garcia on bass.
In September 2003, Omara went back to Egrem studios to record her second solo album for World Circuit / Nonesuch, Flor de amor. Nick Gold was joined on production duties by Alê Siqueira, a Brazilian whose work with Carlhinos Brown, Caetano Veloso, and the Latin Grammy winning Tribalistas, has earned him the reputation as one his country’s hottest producers. Acclaimed engineer Jerry Boys and renowned Cuban musician and arranger Demtrio Muñiz completed the collaborative production team.
Flor de amor marked a change in direction for Omara Portuondo, revealing a more richly textured and subtle side to her sound. On this album, Omara is backed by the renowned A-list of Cuban musicians who, combined with a selection of excellent Brazilian musicans, give the album its distinctive style.
(Portions of this article first appeared in Vibrations, September 1998. Interview by Francois-Xavier Gomez; revised and updated by Dave McGuire.)
July 13, 2004
Taking center stage, the septuagenarian Buena Vista star elegantly performs Cuban and Brazilian songs. London’s Guardian praised Portuondo’s “charming set”: “Her singing is still both intimate and majestic and she can still cover a whole range of Latin styles.”