The seats of the Teatro de la Ciudad Esperanza Iris are empty. The silence of the place is barely interrupted by the pinching of the double bass strings, until a voice begins to envelop the environment with emotional, soft and clean verses. What does it matter to you that I love you, if you don’t love me anymore. The love that has passed, should not be remembered. On a wicker chair, Omara Portuondo (Havana, Cuba, 92 years old) rehearses. She tries to perfect her voice for the concert with which she will fill the theater in Mexico City this Saturday. “She feels good, she is excited,” her son and her manager, Ariel Jiménez, told this newspaper a few days before. With the performance, Portuondo resumes again Life, the tour with which he seeks to give the public a tour of some of the most relevant issues of his career of more than 70 years. With the tour, which aims to take her around the world, the singer opens the doors to a farewell to the big stages.
“Everything has a beginning and an end. She always denied that she was going to retire, but she is already admitting it, ”says her son. Omara Portuondo doesn’t like interviews, they bore her. For her, the time of media attention has passed, now she only dedicates herself to singing. Despite being one of the most recognizable voices in Cuban music, she does not like to throw flowers. She “She is a simple and natural person. She never thinks about how important she has been as a cultural legacy, she doesn’t pay much attention to it, ”she defends. Luis Omar Montoya, a historian specializing in music at CIESAS, considers Portuondo one of the most relevant figures of the second generation of Cuban musicians, that of the 1950s. “She is a very long-lived woman, who continues to record, who continues to create and that it has the great virtue of remaining current”, the historian points out to this newspaper.
Montoya talks about two pioneering generations in Cuban music in terms of their relationship with the press: the 1940s and the 1950s. In those two decades, musicians such as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Arsenio Rodríguez or the duo of Celina and rutilium. The historian marks the importance of the historical context. The 1950s—the period before the Cuban Revolution, marked by the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista—led to the opening of Cuba with the United States. Trade relations made the exchange of rhythms proliferate between the two countries. Cuba imported jazz and opened its doors to the export of its music to the world. The dialogue between the two countries was weaving a new musical style that marked Portuondo’s career: the feelingcomposed of jazz, bolero and Cuban peasant rhythms.
On the wicker chair, Portuondo looks from one side of the stage to the other, narrows his eyes a little and rests. With the sound of the double bass, he picks up the microphone again and continues the rehearsal. Between the soft verses of the songs, he maintains the occasional high-pitched cry. He finishes, coughs, and drinks some water from the bottle his assistant brings him.
‘The girlfriend of feeling’
The singer began one of the broadest careers in music at a young age, at just 17 years old. “There are people who are born with that gift. I think that she has been the longest that has had the space and time to do what she likes, ”says her son. She began to adopt the nickname of The girlfriend of feeling almost since her debut, when she sang Havana jazz standards with her sister, Haydee Portuondo. Montoya explains that jazz has two phases: exposition and improvisation. “When Omara Portuondo incorporates jazz into her music, she takes the Cuban music of that moment to another level of interpretation and quality,” she considers.
He formed the Las D’Aida Quartet with his sister, Elena Burke and Moraima Secada. Later, she released her first solo album of hers in 1959, Black magic. “Her experiential charge of her is also manifested in her songs and in her interpretation. Cuban history is closely linked to the history of Omara. Her career was also influenced by magical religious thought, that of the rhythms of the Yoruba —the set of traditions and beliefs imported from Africa—”, affirms the historian. In the lyrics of her first album you can hear: There is a strange black magic in you, which is like a curse to me. And in that spell that is in your look, my soul is embraced in a sensual heat.
From Cuba to the world
Montoya explains that the dialogue between the US and Cuba in the 1950s marked the first internationalization of Guajira music. The second would come a few years later, with the birth of the Buena Vista Social Club project in 1996. The American musician and producer Ry Cooder started the project, attracting relevant music figures such as Omara Portuondo herself, Ibrahim Ferrer or Compay. Second. “The project of the 90s it’s on another level. It validates, revalidates and does justice to this generation of Cuban artists of the 40 and the 50and the album they recorded in 1997, when the World Cup in France was taking place, was a worldwide, global success”, affirms the historian.
The internationalization of Cuban music poses a new position. “From that project, Cuban music acquires another status. It is synonymous with having a musical culture, with good taste, ”he points out. Montoya believes that the Buena Vista Social Club raises the bar for his work and turns it into a cultural capital, the category coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu to explain how knowledge, education and the rest of the advantages that a person can count on give them a higher status in society.
The historic voice of the Buena Vista Social Club whispers the occasional joke during the rehearsal on the stage of the theater in the capital. “I want to sleep,” he says half jokingly half seriously.
“Give it to me all of it!” Portuondo exclaims suddenly sitting in the wicker chair.
-The Cuban night? — asks the pianist.
-Clear. ohOf course!, I have to sayOf course!— he jokes again.
After the D’Aida Quartet and her first solo album, Omara Portuondo’s career continued to cross the bridges that connect different musical genres, going from feeling to blues, or from son to flamenco, going through Brazilian popular music. “She may have skipped gospel, she always wanted to sing with one of those groups,” qualifies her son. The repertoire of songs that the Cuban carries behind her back is nourished by some collaborations that her 75-year career has been gathering. “She is a star, she has a hierarchy. She shared the stage with Édith Piaf in the US, with Bola de Nieve, with Beni Morel, with Eliades Ochoa, with Natalia Lafourcade, with El Cigala… her career has always been stable upwards, ”says Montoya.
Portuondo has always liked intrepid things as a personal challenge. Just a few months ago, the singer collaborated on the latest album by the Spanish artist C. Tangana with the song I worship you. “He has the ability to dialogue with different generations. She knows how to listen in terms of art. She is capable of always staying current and adapting to fashions, ”says the historian. Portuondo’s career has included more than thirty collaborations with antagonistic musicians. In 2008, he released an album together with the Brazilian Maria Bethânia, under the name Omara Portuondo and Maria Bethânia. In it, Portuondo sang in Portuguese, a language in which he continues to sing in his spare time.
A break between song and song
On stage, and surrounded by percussion, a piano and a double bass, the verses of a voice marked by the nuances of the bolero continue to fill the silence. Cuban night, pretty brunette with a sensual soul. With your smile of the moon and eyes of stars, voice of a whisper of fronds and lullaby of the sea. Gold hoop earrings, a blue scarf and an even bluer headband highlight the singer, who tries to rest at the end of each song. “He always likes colors, because that is joy. She never wears something sober, she doesn’t like sober clothes, ”says Jiménez.
With Life, Omara Portuondo fulfills once again the request that her mother made to her before she died, to bring music to the world. In a few months, the singer will come down from the stage and stay to record albums and some more specific projects. She “she is going to keep many things, as an artist and as a person. She will be left with that beautiful memory of a legacy that she left for the history of music, both Cuban and international ”, concludes Ariel Jiménez.
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