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1 Omara Portuondo
Omara Portuondo is arguably the best known Cuban entertainer on the island, thanks to her appearance in the film Buenavista Social Club, and the album of the same name. Semi–retired, she lives the life of a star, but a star in Cuba is not the same as a star in the Western World. She can be seen driving around Havana in her Russian–made Lada, singing along to the CD player and waving to passing fans. She performs rarely, only on some special occasions for benefits and such.
After one such show in which female Cuban film and television stars modeled the clothes of a young Cuban designer, she gave a 10–minute a cappella concert on a street in Vedado, inviting anyone to join in. Most just stood back and listened. It was like Barbara Streisand standing on a Manhattan street corner as the city went by. You were tempted to look around to find the cameras filming for a movie, but it wasn´t a Hollywood musical, it was Havana, and these things happen in Cuba. On another occasion, I was invited to attend the Peña of Olga Navarro at the 1950´s Club Las Vegas. A “Pena” is an ongoing variety show, and there are many held throughout the capitol each week.
2 Olga Navarro
Olga Navarro is a composer, poet and actress who came out of the golden age of Cuban Film. She was a dead ringer for Mexican actress María Félix, and doubled for her in films. Her “Peña” attracts a wide variety of acts, some who may have been forgotten, and others who are rising young stars. One day, Olga told me that she had a special guest and that I shouldn´t miss the show. She was right. The guest was Omara, who did a 30–minute set, which was as intimate and heartfelt as I´d seen.
It would have brought down the house at Carnegie Hall, as she did when she played New York with Buenavista, and she regularly sells out European concert halls. But here you couldn´t beat the price: at 10 Cuban pesos, the living legend was singing to an audience that was 95% Cuban, for 50 cents. Afterwards, I asked her about playing the world´s grand concert halls as opposed to a small club in central Havana. “These are my people, my friends, and so it is always an honor to perform for them,” she told me. After that show, I felt I was the one who was honored.
3 Lourdes Torres
Lourdes Torres has been called an actress who sings, since her music can be enjoyed on its own, but is best appreciated when seen. Unlike the other vocalists with whom the Latin crowd often sings along, her words of lost love and broken heartedness are emoted so strongly the audience sits openmouthed as she attacks the lyrics in her own style, blasting out a feminist message in a country with a macho tradition. Once finished, the club usually breaks into standing ovations and thunderous applause.
“Most of my songs are based on reality, and I don´t think that makes me a feminist. But if defending the integrity of women makes me a feminist, then yes, I am very much a feminist. For many years, in the culture of my country, women were considered practically useless. They were mothers and homemakers, and nothing more. But those times are past. Today a woman is equal to a man in all respects, at school, at work, in what they bring to the household economically. There are still men who think in the old way, and women who suffer under those conditions, but not me. No, I´m definitely not one of those women.” Lourdes is reportedly the favorite singer on the island of Gloria Estefan. As a bonus, you can sometimes catch her daughter, Lourdes Libertad, an accomplished singer in her own right, on the same bill. Where to see her: Dos Gardenias (Lourdes Libertad can often be seen at the Havana Café).
4 Raquel Hernández
Perhaps because of her extensive traveling from Mexico to Europe, Moscow to Portugal, where you dropped into a performance by Raquel Hernández, you might think you had wandered into a Manhattan nightclub. Her repertoire is one of the widest you will hear in Cuba, with bossa–nova, blues, jazz and ballads rolling out of her sets in several languages. Entertaining is certainly nothing new to her, she was a soloist in a choir at six years of age. She studied piano and guitar at the conservatory of music, and never stopped playing and singing, no matter the genre. There is one language though, that most audiences are surprised to find in a Havana cabaret, which is Latin. The native Habanera does a bring–down the house version of Ave Maria. “They usually don´t expect to hear it at a night club, but I´ve had great response since I started doing it,” Raquel told me. If she doesn´t sing it, be sure to request it. Where to see her: Gato Tuerto, Dos Gardenias Restaurants.
5 Teresa García Caturla
At the beautiful outdoor setting of the swimming pool of the Hotel Nacional, a 70´s something woman is explaining how football (soccer) is the world´s favorite sport, but here in Cuba the clear favorite is baseball. It seems a strange introduction to a song, but it is exactly that. She is singing legend Teresa García Caturla, and her song talks about throwing a baseball. It´s a rousing rumba, but Teté, as she is known, makes the show by dancing her way through the crowd with a chekeré (a large maraca–like instrument played with two hands) and hurling it through the air in a game of catch with her audience. She throws it to tables 25 feet away, but the real trick is that when the audience members throw it back to her, she always catches it. I´ve seen this performance at least half a dozen times, and I´ve never seen her drop the ball or in this case the chekere. “I was a good athlete in school, playing volleyball and basketball, and I learned to catch from my brothers,” she told interviewer Lily Batista. She also learned music at home, and went on to sing and direct the famous all female group Cuarteto D´Aida. “The group became very popular on television and radio, but of course, Anacaona was really the mother of all Women´s music in Cuba.” Her laughing energy makes it obvious that she enjoys what she is doing, and, although her career spans decades, she is not doing some oldies tour. Her album, Llegó Teté (Teté´s Here) took Record of the Year award in 2005, and her repertoire goes from classic salsa to soulful ballads. She often tours and performs with the remaining members of the Buenavista Social Club, and is a must–see in any venue. Where to see her: Hotel Nacional
The recently refurbished Hotel Saratoga is a jewel which sparkles anew across from the Capitol in Havana. But aside from just recreating the hotel to its former glory, it honored its past by naming one of its restaurants Anacaona. The name comes from a Dominican Indian Princess, who led the fight against Spanish colonialism. But more important for Cuban music, it was the name chosen in 1932 by the eight Castro sisters, who began singing and playing together at small functions, some of them held right in this hotel.
The fact that it was founded by sisters was important, since sisters play an important part in many of the groups we discovered. In 1988, the group was reformed under the direction of Georgia Aguirre, and her sister Dora. “We had been studying with the original group, which was more than 50 years old at the time,” Georgia told me. “The name was everything, as far as Cuban women´s music went, and it was decided to keep the name but to bring it into a new century. It was an honor to do so, since Anacaona is famous world–wide as the original all–girl band.” They have toured internationally, but in the past year or so have concentrated on getting to know their own country better. So they pop up at venues around Havana and often can be heard in outlying cites as well. With a dozen of the best musicians to be found anywhere, this year they are celebrating their 75th anniversary.
7 Sexto Sentido
The sweet, acappella voices of Sexto Sentido harmonized their way to a Cubadisco Prize this year, and hearing them once is all that it takes to understand why. Combining beauty with angelic sounds they are a treat to see, and hear as they sing in four languages. Although primarily known as a vocal ensemble, they are accompanied by a smooth jazz group which accents their contemporary performance. They are reportedly a favorite of President Fidel Castro. Where to see them: Habana Libre Hotel
Aimee García has a sweet disposition, which underlies a fierce determination for success. Her group Krystal often finds work when others can´t. And that is directly tied to Aimee´s determination to succeed. “If you want to be professional, you need to be on time,” Aimee told producer Iliana Batista Suárez. “I tell the girls, it doesn´t matter what your situation is at home, it doesn´t matter what your problems are with transportation. We all have those problems in Cuba. If we are going to be professional, we need to get to the job on time.” Where to see them: Hotel Presidente, Bar Karachi
9 Obini Bata
We are in a concrete block of a room just off the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, with no air conditioning, no fans, and, as an added obstacle, no windows. Yet practice makes perfect, and for Eva Caridad, Obini Bata, the percussion–based folkloric group she founded 15 years ago, has to have it right. So they work through the summer heat on the lyrics and rhythms, and dance steps which have made her group a world favorite. Obini Bata has a look—all six are ballet–dancer thin; but with telltale rock–hard arms from incessant pounding on congas and bata drums.
The rhythms are definitely African, but the talent is pure Cuban. “I love what I do, but the group is as one, we must all be together for it to work,” says Eva. “It´s why rehearsals are so important, no matter the conditions.” Where to see them: Centro Yoruba, where they hold a Peña each Friday
10 Son Damas
Two of the best smiles in Cuban women´s music can be found in the group Son Damas, and are from sisters Dalia Prada Noa, director and pianist, and Anellys Prada Noa, who sings and plays congas. Ten–strong, they feature a tight horn section and up–to–date arrangements befitting of a group that has appeared often on the world stage. Now celebrating their 15th year, Son Damas can be counted on for a tight show with music you can enjoy dancing to or just listening and watching the choreography of the group itself. Where to see them: Casa de la Música.