July 2005

Omara Portuondo
July 2, 2005Roy Thomson HallToronto
Report by Joyce Corbett

Omara Portuondo, the elegant seventy-five-year-old grande dame of Cuban song, filled Roy Thomson Hall with her magic on Saturday night, moving the audience through a repertoire of love lost and found, of joy, longing and regret. People danced and people cried. Someone in the front row waved a Cuban flag.

Adored by the people, Omara has been called the Cuban Edith Piaf. And like the famous street urchin turned national hero, her life story could be a romantic novel. Her mother was from a wealthy Spanish-Cuban family and her father was a black baseball player on Cuba’s national team. The couple was spurned by their relatives and society in general, but Omara seems to have grown up happily in a home full of love and song. Her older sister worked as a dancer at Havana’s famous Tropicana Night Club and taught her all the moves. One night, another dancer fell ill and Omara was ready to step in. Thus began the career of a great performer.

Omara started a vocal group Las D’Aida in the late forties that popularized Brazilian-influenced music in Cuba. They sang Bossa Nova and Samba mixed with American jazz and traditional Cuban styles. She toured the U.S. in the late 50s and sang jazz tunes such as Ellington’s Caravan in Miami before the Cuban missile crisis put an end to any more U.S. shows. When in 1967 Castro mobilized the entire country in an effort to achieve a record sugar cane harvest, Omara sang in the fields to encourage the workers. She toured Asia and the communist block countries in the 70s and reappeared on the international music scene in the 90s with the release of Ry Cooder’s first Buena Vista Social Club recording.

Sitting at a table in Roy Thompson Hall before the show, I noticed a Tennessee Williams quote on a banner “In memory, everything seems to happen to music”. A scene from Cuban film maker Humberto Solás’ movie, Miel para Oshún (Honey for Oshun) came back to me. The two main characters discuss the past as we hear Omara and Compay Segundo singing ‘Veinte Años’, a song about love lost “twenty years ago”.

She starts her concert with “Tabú”, the first track on her new CD, Flor de Amor. Opening with a soulful saxophone and continuing with Omara’s voice set against soft background vocals it also features a beautiful clarinet solo from Miguel Antuña. The music reverberates with Yoruban influence, the lyrics refer to the orishas (santería gods) Oshún and Yemaya.

Omara and her 13-piece band of renowned musicians play a variety of classic Cuban styles - bolero, son, cha cha cha, charanga, rumba and mambo. Omara sings the jazz standard, “The Man I Love” and the Arsenio Rodriguez classic “No me llores mas”. Papi Oviedo, considered the world master of the tres, plays the instrument behind his back. The lights are dimmed and only Papi Oviedo remains on stage. Dressed in a white suit with a black shirt and a white tie, he cuts a striking figure as he plays the tres. Omara Portuondo, making a quietly dramatic entrance, returns to the stage and sings the haunting “Amorosa Guajira”. She also does a duet with Swami, Jr. the virtuosic guitar player from Brazil. Though she has everyone dancing and clapping during several pieces, overall the concert is more warm and romantic singing than fiery Cuban music. The only problem is that the sound system muffles and distorts some of the subtleties of the music.

The program ends with the rousing son/salsa “Oriente” and the crowd goes wild with applause. Omara Portuondo, a true performer, comes back to sing not one but three songs, including ‘Veinte Años’ and ending with a passionate “Besame Mucho”. With this mixed program of Brazilian, Cuban and jazz styles it seems to me that Omara Portuondo is singing the soundtrack of her career.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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