Omara y nosotros
Cuban chanteuse Omara Portuondo celebrates 80th birthday with Chico
“Hace sol, y mucho calor,” answered Omara Portuondo, when asked in Spanish how the weather was in her hometown of Havana, Cuba. The iconic Cuban singer was speaking from Havana during a recent short phone interview—conducted in Spanish, English and a little Spanglish—that began at 9 a.m. on a breezy fall Chico day. In Cuba, it was lunchtime and sunny.
Portuondo had been unavailable for interviews the week previously, her publicist had said, due to a tropical storm that was hitting the Caribbean island and causing telephones and e-mail to malfunction.
Still, we had a slightly less-than-perfect phone connection, but were able to talk about her upcoming Oct. 29 appearance at Chico State. Portuondo’s return to the Laxson Auditorium stage (she was last here in October 2003) coincides precisely with her 80th birthday.
Portuondo—for those who may not be familiar with her—was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Cuban music scene and shot to worldwide fame in 1996 (thanks to American musician and ethnomusicologist-of-sorts Ry Cooder) as the only female star of the wildly popular album and Oscar-nominated film Buena Vista Social Club. Before that, the sultry, sensitive Portuondo had been widely known in her country for many years, both as a dancer from the age of 15 in such popular venues as the Cabaret Tropicana, and for her gorgeous voice.
Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, she did experience a considerable amount of success in the United States and internationally as a singer. Her membership in the 1950s in the Cuarteto Las D’Aida, for instance, resulted in stage appearances with such American jazz stars as Nat “King” Cole and Sarah Vaughn, and a record deal with RCA Victor.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the Latin diva was able to tour the U.S. again, for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Earlier this year, she was picked to be the voice of Mama Odie, the blind “good witch” in Disney’s Spanish version of the animated musical film The Princess and the Frog.
She also said how much fun she had on her recent tour to “el sud de los Estados Unidos”—the American South. In July, August, September and early October 2010, she hit stages in Austin and Houston, Texas; Fayetteville, Ark., and at New Orleans’ lively Carnaval Latino.
She had visited New Orleans prior to 2005’s devastating hurricane, and added delicately that still-struggling New Orleans “was a beautiful place before Katrina.”
Backing up Portuondo for her birthday concert will be the stellar quintet consisting of 26-year-old Cuban jazz pianist Harold López Nussa, France-based Cuban-ex-pat upright bassist Felipe Cabrera, 26-year-old drum-playing prodigy Rodney Yllarza Barreto, percussionist Andres Coayo, and brilliant Brazilian seven-string guitarist, producer, composer and arranger Swami Jr. on guitar.
Portuondo will be performing songs from her 2009 Latin Grammy-winning album Gracias—which she acknowledged was “muy famoso en todas partes de Latin America”—as well as selections from her 2007 album Solamente Una Vez and 2004’s Flor de Amor.
She also spoke to the influences of Brazilian and French music—as well as the France- and Brazil-based musicians accompanying her—on the Cuban sound that she will bring to Chico. “Brasileño, Francés—pero todos son Cubanos [translated as ‘but they’re all Cubans’],” she offered.
Before we hung up, I wished Portuondo a “feliz cumpleaños,” to which she responded with a very gracious, “Gracias—thank you very much.”
I thanked her for her paciencia and she, in turn, thanked me for mine, and we joked that in nearly 80 years of living she has surely developed a lot of it.