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Omara Portuondo is one of Cuba's greatest vocalists, and has been acclaimed as such almost from the day she started singing professionally in the late forties. From 1950 through the late '60's, she was Cuba's top performer of songs in the filin style (the word is taken from the English word feeling, and describes music inspired by the performances of Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and Glenn Miller, among others). At the height of her popularity, Portuondo sang with a number of different groups, always with great success.
Omara Portuondo was born in Cayo Hueso (Havana) in 1930. Omara’s mother came from a rich Spanish family and was expected to marry into another society family. Instead she ran off with the man she loved, a tall, handsome baseball player from the Cuban national team. Moreover he was black and in those days mixed race marriages were still frowned upon in Cuba. "My mother always hid the fact that she had married a black man. If they bumped into each other in the street they had to ignore each other. But at home they recreated what society denied them - a haven of peace and harmony. They loved each other very much," Omara recalls.
During her schooldays, she sang in choirs and studied music. When her older sister Aidee became a dancer at the famous cabaret Tropicana, Omara soon followed her - by accident. One day in 1945, the ballet troupe found itself short when a dancer dropped out two days before an important premiere. Omara had watched her sister rehearse so often that she knew all the steps and was asked to stand in. "It was a very chic cabaret but I said it was out of the question," Omara recalls. "I was very shy and I was ashamed to show my legs." Her mother told her that she couldn’t let them down and thus began a career as a dancer, forming a famous partnership with the dancer Rolando Espinosa. Today she still performs at the Tropicana as one of its star singers.
Her debut solo album, Magia Negra, appeared in 1959. It was an adventurous affair straddling Cuban music and American jazz, and included versions of ‘That Old Black Magic’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’. Yet she remained with the group and two years later was with Las D’Aida singing in a Miami hotel when the Cuban missile crisis caused the rupture in relations with America and began Cuba’s long period of isolation. Omara immediately returned home while her sister Aidee stayed in America. She continued with a revamped Las D’Aida until 1967 when she left to pursue her solo career. "So many singers had gone into exile that there was a gap to be filled," she says.
Representing Cuba at the Sopot Festival in Poland - a kind of socialist version of the Eurovision Song Contest - she sang ‘Como un Milagro.’ It was written by Juanito Márquez , with whom she also made the album Esta es Omara Portuondo. Eventually Márquez also went into exile in Miami and a quarter of a century later was the man Gloria Estefan turned to when she needed some traditional Cuban-style arrangements for her 1993 Spanish-language album ‘Mi Tierra.’
Omara returned to the international spotlight when producer Manuel Domínguez, the owner of Spain’s Nubenegra label, flew Omara to Spain to record a new album, Palabras, in 1995. The album’s artistic producers were nueva trova duo Gema y Pavel, who had settled in Madrid. On Palabras, Omara was backed by Cuban and Spanish musicians. She gave her unique vocal styling to songs coming from several different eras, the vieja trova of the '20's and '30's, the dance music of the '40's, filin from the '50's and '60's, and finally nueva trova from the '60's and '70's. She even recorded an old favorite, a Spanish song she had heard in a movie when she was a young girl.
Ry Cooder had first come across Omara when he was in Cuba in 1995 recording with The Chieftains. The following year, when the American guitarist returned to Havana with World Circuit’s Nick Gold for the Buena Vista sessions, Omara was by coincidence in the Egrem studios at the same time. Cooder immediately invited her to sing the bolero ‘Veinte Años’ with Compay Segundo, and it became one of the highlights of the album.
There’s a profound moment in Wim Wenders’ film ‘The
Buena Vista Social Club’ when Omara Portuondo and
Ibrahim Ferrer have just finished singing the heartbreakingly beautiful ‘Silencio.’ The song says that if the flowers in her garden see her sadness they will surely wither and die. As they take the applause, a tear forms in the corner of Omara’s eye. Ibrahim removes his handkerchief from his pocket and gently wipes away the tear. It is Wenders’ favorite scene in the entire film for the way it encapsulates the bittersweet romance of Cuban music in a single frame.
Flor de Amor, released in 2004, is a collection of musical love letters, was recorded in Havana's legendary EGREM studios with a stellar cast of Cuban and Brazilian musicians as well as producers Nick Gold and Jerry Boys, renowned Cuban arranger Demetrio Muniz (Ibrahim Ferrer), and the Brazilian producer Ale Siqueira. The record's varied set culminates in the tender Portuguese ballad "Casa Calor," specially written for her by the Brazilian musician Carlinhos Brown. Guitarists featured on the album include Papi Oviedo on tres (traditional Cuban guitar), Manuel Galban on rhythm, Brazil's Swami Jr. on seven-string, and Irakere's Carlos Emilio and Jorge Chicoy on acoustic and electric. Portuondo's rhythm section features Cachaito Lopez on bass, Roberto Fonseca on piano, and the Cuban maestros Miguel "Anga" Diaz and Ramses Gonzales on congas and drums.
Portuondo won a Billboard Latin Music Award in 2005. In 2008 she won the "Premio Musica Brasileira" Brasilian Music Award for her duets album with Maria Bethania, Maria Bethania & Omara Portuondo.
In September of 2009 Omara Portuondo was honored with a nomination from the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards for Gracias (World Village, released December 9, 2008). Gracias, which was awarded the Cubadisco 2009 Grand Prix in May of that year, was nominated for Best Contemporary Tropical Album or Mejor Album Tropical Contemporaneo. Gracias was produced by Ale Siqueira, with musical direction from Swami Jr., and it features such guest artists as Jorge Drexler, Richard Bona, Cachaito Lopez, Chico Buarque and Chucho Valdes.
In 2011, she released an album with pianist Chucho Valdés, titled Omara & Chucho, where they explore the intimacy of the duo arrangement by recording a selection of Cuban and Latin American classics.
On January 1st,2012, Omara Portuondo received the 2011 Award of Havana’s Grand Theater. Created in 1985, it was conferred to Omara for her vocal and interpretative quality, her brilliant and successful national and international career, and the Cuban nature of each of her performances.
Today Omara lives in a high-rise apartment just off the Malecón in Havana with magnificent views over the sea. She remains a flamboyant fixture on the music scene, singing regularly at the Tropicana, the Delirio Habanen
and the Cafe Cantante - one of the world’s great divas who is only now emerging from Cuba’s long isolation to achieve the international acclaim she so richly deserves.
Magia Negra (Velvet, 1959. Reissued by Kubaney 190 and Kristal 1124)
Seis Voces y un Sentimiento (Egrem 3123, 1960)
Omara Portuondo (Areito 3358, 1967)
Esta es Omara Portuondo (Areito 1071)
¡Omara! (Areito 1071)
¡Omara Portuondo… con Adalberto y su Son! (Areito 1071, 1987)
Palabras (Intuition/Nubenegra 1011, 1995)
Desafios - Omara Portuondo &Chucho Valdés (Intuition/Nubenegra 1025, 1998)
Oro Musical (Max Music, 1999)
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