Omara Portuondo - Artist Page
Omara Portuondo
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Biography:
 

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.

They had three daughters and as in any Cuban household there was music. There wasn’t a gramophone - they didn’t have the money. Even as a small child, Omara showed a natural aptitude for singing, picking up both melody and harmony lines from listening to her parents singing together. Her father was a good aficionado singerhe had gone to school with the songwriter Eliseo Grenet, and they remained friends, so that music was a constant in Omara's childhood home. Omara remembers her parent’s favorite music, which included songs by Ernesto Grenet and Sindo Garay’s ‘La Bayamesa’. They were her first informal singing lessons and the songs remain in her repertoire to this day.

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.

On weekends Omara and Aidee would sing American jazz standards with a bunch of friends which included César Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Méndez and the blind pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, who can still be heard playing around Havana’s nightclubs. They became known as Loquibambla Swing and the style they played - a Cubanised version of the bossa nova with American jazz influences - became known as "feeling" or "filin" as it was often written in Spanish. On their radio debut Omara was announced as "Miss Omara Brown, the fiancé of filin." The Anglicized name was soon forgotten, but she is still known by many Cubans as "la novia del filin".

Omara, her sister Aidee, and Elena Burke (who got Omara her first real gig) decided to form a quartet with three female and one male voices, but after meeting with Aida Diestro, they approached Moraima Secada, and formed the Cuarteto d'Aida, with Diestro directing and playing piano, and four female voices harmonizing. "We toured America and Aida’s vocal arrangements were very innovative. We were acclaimed everywhere and when Nat King Cole played the Tropicana we sang on stage with him ," Omara recalls. The group was an immediate success.

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.’

The early years after the revolution were difficult ones in Cuba’s history, cut-off from the west as Castro pursued his socialist vision. In 1967 Omara remembers almost the entire Cuban people being conscripted in an attempt to break the sugar cane harvest record. "People from the cities were sent to cut cane in the fields and as artists we were sent into the fields to sing and entertain them while they worked," she recalls.

The late sixties saw the end of popularity for the filin style of singing, and the beginning of what is known as nueva trova. The Seventies found her singing with the top charanga outfit Orquesta Aragon and she traveled widely, often to other Communist countries, although she also sang in France and Japan. Many of her recordings from the era lack sympathetic production but among her best was an album she recorded with Adalberto Alvarez in 1984.

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.

Her 1998 album, Desafios, also on the Nubenegra label, was a collaboration with Chucho Valdes, Cuba’s best pianist.

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.

Omara went on to become part of the legendary Buena Vista performances in Amsterdam and at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and appeared on the follow-up album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. Her own Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo, was the third release in the series.

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.


Discography:
 

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)

Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo

Flor de Amor

Omara Portuondo E Maria Bethania

Gracias


Booking:
 
Planète Aurora. Claire Hénault - Chantal Ferrero, 25, rue Chanzy, 75011 Paris, France, Phone: + 33 1 43 73 70 70, Fax: + 33 1 43 73 70 71. E-mail: info@planete-aurora.com.

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