The fiancée of feeling
Buena Vista diva Omara Portuondo returns to Chico
When your singing is often compared to that of legendary crooners Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, you can relax—you’ve made it. Such is the case with 73-year-old Cuban vocalist Omara Portuondo (of Buena Vista Social Club fame), who makes a triumphant return to Chico’s Laxson Auditorium on Oct. 30.
This sultry diva is not resting on her well-deserved critical acclaim. She’s as energetic and passionate as she was when she began her career more than 50 years ago, as those at her sold-out Laxson show in March 2002 can attest.
That night was a wonderful blend of warm, flowing Afro-Cuban jazz anchored by organic percussion and a variety of soulful Cuban styles: the jazz-influenced filin, dance-oriented Cuban big-band music, and traditional bolero and trova styles. While there were plenty of poignant moments—dancing in the aisles, exciting solos, a jubilant fan waving a Cuban flag—it was the inflection of feeling in her lyrics of forlorn love that really set Portuondo apart. I lost count of how many encores she inspired.
She once summed up her own philosophy about live performance in an interview: “It’s because if I’m singing and in a given moment I say I’m in love, I must feel it and show it, because if I don’t it will all seem very empty and false.”
Born in Havana in October 1930, Portuondo grew up in a poor family. Her mother was from a rich Spanish family but rejected her society upbringing when she ran off with a tall and handsome baseball player from the Cuban national team who happened to be black, in a time and place when mixed marriages were still frowned upon. Though they were too poor to afford a gramophone, their home was a haven filled with the joyous singing of family members who had to pretend not to know each other in their daily lives on the streets.
After years as a dancer at the famous Tropicana cabaret, Portuondo began singing American jazz standards. She performed a Cuban-style version of the bossa nova with American jazz influences that became known as “feeling,” or “filin,” as it was written in Spanish. On her radio debut, Omara was announced as “Miss Omara Brown, the fiancée of filin.”
By 1952, Portuondo had formed Cuarteto Las D’Aida, what would become one of Cuba’s most famous vocal groups, and she soon undertook her first tour of America. Her debut solo album, Magia Negra, appeared in 1959 and included versions of “That Old Black Magic” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan"; she also shared a Cuban stage with Nat King Cole.
Then came the Cuban revolution and the missile crisis of 1962, and Cuba began its cultural isolation. It was a time when many performers became exiles, but Portuondo stayed. In 1967, as Fidel Castro pursued his socialist vision, she sang in the fields to Cuban citizens conscripted in an attempt to break the sugar cane harvest record.
The ‘70s found her singing with the top charanga outfit Orquesta Aragon and performing in other Communist countries, but it wasn’t until American producer/ performer Ry Cooder heard her in 1995 that her career finally got its big break. Asked to contribute a bolero on the Buena Vista Social Club album, Portuondo became a highlight of both the hugely successful album and Wim Wenders’ documentary film, launching her solo career to prominent international acclaim.
As Chico Performances’ Dan DeWayne said before her last show, "The music you are about to enjoy is so powerful and life-affirming in its universal messages that it can aspire to the highest goals of art: It can unite nations." While that might be hopefully naive, the idea that music as a language can cross cultural divides and unite people is one that Omara Portuondo personifies every time she sings.