Cuban singer Omara Portuondo, one of the founders of the emblematic Buena Vista Social Club, begins a US tour celebrating the 85 years that meets this month, with more than 70 on stage.
When Omara Portuondo turns 86 later this month, she’ll have just wrapped up her current U.S. solo tour. Portuondo, known in recent years as the female voice of the Buena Vista Social Club, is performing with a group led by Cuban afro-jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca, and featuring jazz violinist Regina Carter and clarinetist Anat Cohen, alongside several young Cuban players.
“Buena Vista was a complete orchestra,” Portuondo clarifies, marking the difference between her current project and the famous Cuban music collective that she fronted for two decades. “This is a band. There are no trumpets or anything like that.”
Talking on the phone from Boston, where she performed earlier this week at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, the singer is eager to point out that her career did not start with Buena Vista Social Club, and she certainly did not say goodbye to audiences with Buena Vista’s recent “Adios” tour.
“My story is like the story of Cuba,” she says. “Tremendous.”
Although musically speaking, her accent is distinctly Cuban, Portuondo has always been more Ella Fitzgerald than Celia Cruz.
Among her early hits were a cover of “Stormy Weather” in Spanish, and “Magia Negra”, a bewitching Afro-Cuban version of “That Old Black Magic.”
As a teen, Portuondo took part in late-’40s jazz jams in Havana, and by the 1950s, she was touring in the States with bandleader Orlando de la Rosa. She was an integral part of the filin movement, which created a new kind of cosmopolitan bolero that added Cuban swing to American-influenced jazz songs. Most famously, Portuondo was a member of the all-female quartet Las D’Aida, alongside her older sister Haydee, the smoky voiced singer Elena Burke and saucy Maraima Secada, aunt of Latin pop singer Jon Secada. The group toured internationally, starred at the Tropicana, and once appeared on The Steve Allen Show.
As times changed in Cuba, so did Portuondo’s repertoire. She interpreted the socially committed folk songs of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, and recorded a stirring ode to Revolutionary hero Che Guevara. She continued to record in Cuba and take sporadic trips abroad, until she was recruited by Juan de Marcos and Ry Cooder to take part in the landmark 1996 Buena Vista Social Club album.
While digital music has greatly expanded international access to Portuondo’s considerable discography, and Buena Vista has made her an international name, she has also remained focused on her Cuban audience. She is nominated for a 2016 Latin Grammy for Canciones de Cri Cri “El Grillo Cantor”, an album of songs for children recorded on Havana’s Bis music label, which is as yet unavailable in the U.S.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from singing songs for children,” she says. “In Cuba, we have our own children’s music, but on this album, I sing songs by a Mexican composer who was known as El Cri Cri.” The record is nominated in the Best Latin Children’s Album category.
“I just keep working the way that I always have,” Portuondo reasons, as she rests up in her hotel room in preparation for another night on stage. “I’ve still got good legs. I keep going because people ask for me and they like me. I still have my health, my voice, spirit and feeling. While I’ve still got it, I’ll keep doing it... Without music it’s impossible to live, don’t you think?”