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Omara Portuondo: A legendary voice gives thanks to life

Omara Portuondo: A legendary voice gives thanks to life

After enjoying a good cup of coffee, she started to tell us about her childhood, emphasizing two basic details: the neighborhood of Centro Habana where she spent her childhood and the extraordinary harmony that reigned in her family. She says that was a very happy period in her life even though they were quite poor and she affirms that was where her affinity for the arts began.

As soon as her parents discovered her artistic proclivities when she was little, they were always extremely supportive. They were ecstatic at seeing her become a great star. Throughout her school years Omara was always taking part in projects that had to do with entertaining on stage. When she was exactly 17 years old (in 1947) her professional career began as part of the Loquibambia group directed by one of the legends of Cuban music, composer José Antonio Méndez, one of the creators  of filin With this experience, she also came into contact with jazz and Cuban percussion. But it is her special bond with the style known as filin that became one of the most transcendental episodes in her life.

Many believe that filin has been a great influence on her, deeply affecting her interpretive style, that manner she has of communicating with audiences, her healthy self-confidence that paints an intimate atmosphere captivating audiences. People get the sense that her singing style reinvents new sensations. Omara is one of those artists who manage to relive everyone else’s dreams, even in the most precarious of times.

Cubans who are around the age of fifty have witnessed the evolution of this charismatic singer, first as member of the Cuarteto Las D’Aida and subsequently as a solo artist or taking part in stellar projects such as The Buenavista Social Club. In Las D ‘idashe shared the stage with two other great and unique singers: Moraima Secada and Elena Burke, also known as Lady Emotion. The quartet toured several countries in Eastern Europe and in Latin America, such as Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. In Venezuela they participated for many years in the Caracas Carnival. As part of the Tropicana Cabaret Show they traveled to Florida and worked on The Steve Allen Show, a popular US TV variety show of the late fifties.

In an earlier lesser known period of her career, Omara also danced. As we chatted, she revealed that her first dream was to become a classical ballet dancer. Nevertheless, from 1950 she performed in several dance groups: she was one of the chorus girls in Tropicana’s Las mulatas de fuego and she danced in Alberto Alonso’s group which used to perform at the Radiocentro cinema-theater (the now Yara theater). Many critics have said that this period of her career served to reinforce and enrich her repertoire of gestures and the way she moved, giving greater credibility to her performances both in Cuba and all over the world.

Another exciting moment she described to us was when she spoke of her deep spiritual connection with traditional trova and her appreciation of singer-songwriters such as Pepe Sánchez, Manuel Corona, Sindo Garay and ,particularly, María Teresa Vera whom she considers to be the Queen of Cuban music. When we asked her for her favorite song, she smiled and unhesitatingly replied: Veinte años written by María Teresa Vera.

One might say that with Veinte años, Omara has been at center stage of a long and beautiful performance history. She confesses that it was the first song she sang when she was just four years old and it’s easy to understand her emotional attachment to the piece. Over the years, she has been adapting it to her own style, managing to bring out all its power and meaning.

In Omara’s concerts, an awe-inspiring process of synthesis takes place between the high points and defining moments of popular Cuban music. Her voice guides us through a modernizing process of the Trova Santiaguera, Filin, Son, Latin Jazz and Nueva Trova. Going to one of her concerts is a great chance to review the fusion of Cuban rhythms. While Omara was with the D’Aida group, she learned a lot about how to use her voice. She told us that she learned how to feel each piece so that she could transmit that same feeling to her audiences.

Her international debut was at the Sopot International Festival in Poland. For her this was a complicated but fascinating period because she had to find her own style and a new repertoire. Then she was invited to participate in the Encounter for Political Song in 1967 at the Casa de las Americas and she began to test the waters of the Nueva Trova in songs like Pablo Milanes’ Mis veintidós años and Silvio Rodríguez’s La era está pariendo un corazón. More tours and festivals followed, all reaffirming her spectacular interpretive talent.

She keeps a very warm place in her heart for memories of performances in Brazil with the exceptional Maria Bethania. Every night the two of them would construct a kingdom of dreams based on the magic of melody and something mystical would happen.

She joined the Buenavista Social Club in 1996 without any planning. She was in the middle of a taping session and Juan de Marco, the founder of the Son group Sierra Maestra, and Ry Cooder the man who brought together the Buenavista roster, asked her to go upstairs to start rehearsing with them. That’s how it all began. Together with the Buenavista Social Club, she was launched onto the international music scene, going on numerous tours and selling astronomical numbers of CDs.

In November of 2009 she was honored with the Latin Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary Tropical Album; her CD Gracias had already received the Grand Prize at the Cubadisco Festival in May of that same year.

By the end of our conversation, Omara emphasized that for the time being she has no intentions of abandoning the kingdom of the living. During the hour and a half that we spent with her we were able to see her immersed in many plans for future work. Her daily fare continues to give “thanks to life.”

March 2015 This article formed part of the March 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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