Omara Portuondo is 92 and visiting India for the first time. Celebrated as one of Cuba’s legendary musicians, Portuondo’s contralto voice has been impressing audiences across the world for over seven decades. And now, the sprightly nonagenarian is set to perform in India at Windmills Whitefield, Bengaluru. “I have always dreamt about visiting the magical, colourful country of India and I feel blessed that it is finally happening. I am looking forward to experiencing a whole new audience,” she states in an email interview.
Born to a mixed race couple in Cayo Hueso, Havana in 1930, Portuondo’s childhood was filled with music. She grew up listening to her parents singing their favourite songs together around the house. That would also be her first informal music education. In the 1940s, following a brief, yet successful, spell as a dancer in Tropicana, a popular night spot in Havana, Portuondo’s musical career began when she, along with her sister Haydée and a couple of friends, created a group called the Loquibambla Swing.
The group soon came to be known for its particular style of jazz called Filin (a Spanish tweak of the word ‘feeling’), in which the singers adopted an expressive tone to render a song. Portuondo, especially, was so good at it that she earned the moniker ‘La novia del filin’ or the ‘Bride of filin’. Greater success beckoned when Portuondo and her sister started a female vocal quartet, Cuarteto d’Aida, that also featured Elena Burke, Moraima Secada and was led by pianist Aida Diestro. Specialising in Cuban music, the quartet became so popular that they shared the stage with leading musicians of the time including Pedro Vargas, Edith Piaf and Nat King Cole.
The period during the Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro 1959 onwards, and the consequential freezing of US-Cuba relations, impacted Portuondo’s global tours. However, she, unlike her sister and other contemporaries, chose to remain in her country. Today, looking back, Portuondo has no regrets. But she admits to having wondered about the ‘what ifs’. “You know I have asked this question to myself— what would my life have been like if I had left Cuba? And all I can say is I don’t know. It could have been a wise decision or a bitter experience. Life is full of surprises,” she says.
Having embarked on a solo career in 1958, the period between the ‘60s and the ‘90s saw Portuondo recording an array of albums, beginning with Magia Negra (1958), the eponymously titled Omara Portuondo (1967), Sing the Son (1983), Omara Portuondo, Adalberto Alvarez and His Son (1984), and Palabras (1995), among others. In 1996, Portuondo’s musical career received an unexpected fillip that made her a familiar name among young jazz lovers in the world. She was invited to become a part of The Buena Vista Social Club.
The project, powered by the efforts of producer Nick Gold and musician Ry Cooder, looked to celebrate traditional forms of Cuban music including son cubano, bolero, guajira and danzón. It brought together an ensemble of veteran Cuban musicians who’d enjoyed successful careers before the revolution. In a stellar line up, which included Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Juan de Marcos González, Rubén González and Eliades Ochoa, and more, Portuondo was the sole female vocalist. She was brought in because she was a star and considered a living ambassador of Cuban music at the time. Being the only female vocalist of the group also earned her a title that she is still known for: The Diva of the Buena Vista Social Club.
“The Buena Vista Social Club was an unprecedented event. The fact that I got to work and tour the world with many long-standing musician friends was one of the most wonderful things that could have happened to me. And for that I am eternally grateful,” Portuondo reminisces. As for her memories of performing at Carnegie Hall —a performance that’s recorded for posterity in Wim Wender’s 1999 documentary, also titled The Buena Vista Social Club— Portuondo recalls feeling emotional. “When I got on to the Carnegie Hall stage, the applause from the audience made me nervous. So much so that I went back to the green room until my son asked me to come out again. When I sang Silencio with Ibrahim Ferrer, there were so many emotions that ran through my mind—but mostly I felt happy,” she adds.
Portuondo turned 90 during the covid-19 pandemic. A musician, who has declared one too many times that she’d sing till the day she died, the pandemic years failed to stem her enthusiasm to create more music. With tours on a halt, Portuondo focused her energies on making a new album. Sitting in Havana, she invited friends and colleagues like Grammy winner Keb' Mo', Rubén Blades and Natalia Lafourcade to do a long-distance collaboration with her on an album. Released on 13 May, 2023, the album, Vida, is her response to the pandemic years and life itself. The album has her son Ariel Jiménez Portuondo as executive producer and Grammy nominated Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno as creative producer.
“Vida is a kind of statement album, an answer to the odd situation we found ourselves with through the pandemic, where tours had to stop, and we were isolated from each other. I thought this was a good way to connect with my beloved colleagues and stay active with a positive spirit. At the same time we were losing many dear friends and I was naturally devastated by the many losses that humanity experienced,” Portuondo says. The album has her singing a range of songs. She has, over the years, sung songs of mourning, pain, life and death. “However, I have always been optimistic and positive, and I wish to uplift people so at the end of the album, I bring joyful tunes to dance to. Life is about how we can overcome troubles and give to each other,” she adds.
Turning focus back to her performance in Bengaluru on 8-9 June, Portuondo’s hopes for it are simple. “I hope that the public likes the concert that I am going to give. I hope they are prepared to listen to boleros so that they can dance. Maybe we will see some Bollywood-Latin moves!” she says.
Omara Portuondo Live in Concert will take place at Windmills Whitefield, Bengaluru on 8-9 June, 8.30 pm onwards