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Posted May 01, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Music

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Omara Portuondo, pop queen of Castro’s communist republic, is adored on stage and mobbed in the street. Joe Muggs meets her in Havana
Like just about every public space in Cuba, the hilltop cafe where we have stopped to stretch our legs en route from Havana to Matanzas has a small band of musicians playing traditional songs. Today they are in for a surprise: about to join them in an impromptu singalong is one of Cuba’s biggest stars.

Dynamic drive: Omara Portuondo

As we sit down in the shade with coffees and pia coladas, our travelling companion, Omara Portuondo, shimmies up to them and joins in with their renditions. The Cubans around us look on agog, and not surprisingly – to them, this is as if Shirley Bassey has suddenly arrived and joined a bunch of small-town buskers.

It has to be said that when she greeted us earlier in our hotel lobby unmade-up, hair scraped back, wearing a velour tracksuit and a shirt printed with “tropical” motifs she didn’t exactly look the model of an international diva. Indeed, her apparel was more like that of an American senior citizen on vacation.

Yet her regal poise and the practised ease with which she greeted and chatted with various industry and media people instantly gave away her status. For Omara Portuondo is a true Cuban icon a popular entertainer who has been a mainstay of prime-time TV, movies and concert halls throughout the Castro era.

Later on, when she takes the stage for her concert in Matanzas, we bear witness to some of the reasons for her popularity.

She is 75 but has happily trotted through a day chock-full with informal interviews, official receptions for various Peoples’ Committees, meet-and-greet sessions with her public, and impromptu singalong sessions. Now, finally dressed in her full diva get-up (ludicrously glittery trouser suit with sequinned breaking-waves motif; dramatic make-up; bouffant wig), she is energetically and suggestively salsa-dancing with her guitarist in the middle of a long and dynamic concert throughout which her voice is note-perfect and beltingly powerful.

By the time the set reaches a frenzied rumba-drumming climax, followed by Omara alone on stage leading the ecstatic crowd in singing a final sentimental ballad, we are utterly bowled over by her stamina and professionalism.

Unlike the bulk of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians with whom she came to international prominence, Omara does not purely specialise in the Afro-Cuban dance music beloved of world-music fans. Certainly, her set does include plenty of lively pieces infused with the rhythms of Santeria (the popular hybrid religion, mixing West African Yoruba practices and Spanish Catholicism), but it is equally dominated by big-band cabaret numbers and exceedingly melodramatic ballads.

During the introduction to the concert, in between being presented with endless flowers and gifts by every single committee and guild in Matanzas, Omara duets with two local celebrities on pop ballads of a veritable Cliff Richard level of slushiness.

But she couldn’t care less about “authenticity”. When we sit down with a translator couple of days later, she makes this plain: “I know my music is not so traditional as some other people’s, but that’s OK I just want to do the music which makes people happy.

“Sometimes that is the dance songs, the rumba and son rhythms, but often people want to hear the boleros [sentimental ballads] or modern pop music, too. When I was growing up, we were not rich, but we were very happy, even if we had to share small amounts of food, and part of that happiness was always having music around.

“It’s part of being Cuban to always hear music and play music so I sing all the different kinds of songs to try to reach all the people and try and make them happier in their lives, too.”

In many ways, it seems that this juxtaposition of kitsch and authenticity, cheesy sentimentality and deep grooves, is more representative of Cuban life than the supposedly more bona fide sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. People do want slushy modern pop alongside the traditional dance sounds, for the Cuban way in most things seems to be to grab and stitch together anything and everything into whatever works, whatever will help them get by in difficult circumstances. Just as the cities have Art Deco hotels next to communist-era housing blocs and third-world ad-hoc breeze-block housing, so Cuban art and music is a mixture of appropriated sounds from all manner of cultures and eras.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly than when we watch a studio session by the band of trumpet legend “Guajiro” Mirabal, featuring maverick guitarist Manuel Galban and charismatic, impish vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer. The musicians gathered in the famous Egrem studios range in age from backing singers in their late teens to the 77-year-old Ferrer and sport everything from hip-hop-style American sportswear to immaculate Jackie-Wilson-like quiffs.

Ferrer echoes Omara’s comments about how intrinsic music is to the Cubans: “Cuba is strong, and you can see this in our music. When I see young people loving this music and mixing it with their own styles, it makes me proud that the culture is continuing.

“When they refused me entry to the US, I wondered what they were afraid of. They called me a terrorist, but I’ve never used a weapon. My only weapons are my songs, my culture, and the good relationships and friendships that keep my life rich whether or not I have success and money.”

Later, as we are shown round the poor district of Havana where Portuondo was raised, the reaction of the people coming out to greet her is full of real affection, and she is happy to spend time in conversation with anyone who approaches.

When asked about this, she says: “People are not rich here, but life is relaxed. When I tour the world, I see your celebrities kept apart from the audience, and I wonder why that is; it seems a little sad.

“It’s wonderful that I can see the world, and I am always so happy to see people moved by the music, but at the same time it is a joy to come back here where I can be myself and relax.”

Her new album, Flor De Amor, with its modern string arrangements and glossy production turning classic boleros into haunting pieces of exotica, looks set to propel Portuondo to greater international success. She still seems to be brimming over with the vigour that has sustained her fame throughout Cuba’s fluctuating fortunes.

Back at our hotel, as we relax with mojitos and cigars and she sips a Coke, she muses on her fame: “I’ve done well in Cuba because I can sing with young pop stars, or with great musical heroes like Ibrahim; I can be at the front of the stage to sing the big emotional songs, but I can join in with the rhythms of the band, too, for the dance songs. If I can get the world audiences to understand what all these different musical expressions mean to us here, I will be very happy.”

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 01, 2004 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    What a great story. She seems like a wonderful, talented Cuban singer and entertainer.

    Cuba consulting services

  2. Follow up post #2 added on June 18, 2004 by Mar

    En mis oidos la msica tuvo un antes y un despuÈs,Omara Portuondo fue una de las artfices para que indague ms y ms en la msica cubana.Me parece tan nica,tan inigualable ...que no debera compararsela con ninguna otra cantante.Es su sensibilidad ,su voz,sus canciones ...OMARA SOS UNICA EN ESTE MUNDO, TE ADORO ...

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