Omara Portuondo, El Último Beso at the Old Town School of Folk Music

By Don Macica

It’s been four years since the Buena Vista Social Club concluded their “Adiós” tour and almost three since we last saw Omara Portuondo in Chicago. So it was with a measure of both excitement and trepidation that I greeted the news that the legendary Cuban diva was returning to Chicago on May 1. Excitement, because unlike her 2016 concert at Symphony Center, she would be performing this time at the intimate and acoustically perfect Old Town School of Folk Music. Trepidation because the concert’s title was “El Último Beso (The Last Kiss)”. Could she, at the age of 88, finally be retiring? In an interview that I did with her for Agúzate in October 2016, she stated flatly “Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Whether or not we ever get to see Omara Portuondo again in Chicago is unknown, so this might be our last kiss. But as she makes clear in this new interview, it is certainly not hers. One thing is for sure. You will want to be at the Old Town School on May 1 when they present “Omara es Cuba – El Último Beso”.

photos by Johann Sauty

DM – Last night I heard someone refer to the Chicago concert as being part of your farewell tour, and, of course, “El Último Beso” is in the title. Say it isn’t so!

OP – Well, I’m not retiring, the Last Kiss is my last worldwide tour, which will take a couple of years and will visit a lot of countries. But I will keep performing, probably not on long worldwide tours, but music is my life!

DM – I understand that this tour will run until 2020 and truly be global, with stops in Asia, Europe and South America as well as North America, and then ends up back home in Cuba. Does the worldwide popularity of Cuban music surprise you?

OP – That’s correct; I’m really looking forward this tour. It’s going to be really special for me. I’m not surprised by the connection Cuban music has. This is because our music has so many influences, tradition and connects very well with the audience. 

DM – I feel that we are incredibly lucky that you are mostly playing smaller, intimate theaters and clubs on this tour, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing you in larger concert halls. Was this a deliberate choice?

OP – I’m happy performing, true though that on clubs the connection is very close and intimate. It’s priceless to see the audience reaction, their smiles and dance with them. My heart is full of joy to meet again with my American fans. 

DM – You are once again being supported by Roberto Fonseca and his band. Fonseca is that rare musician who completely understands the core qualities of classic Cuban music yet is also strikingly adventurous and globally attuned in some of his own work. What has it been like working with him for the past several years?

OP – He is a unique human being. So gifted and talented. That’s our musical heritage and education, young musicians have a profound respect for our musical tradition but at the same time they are open to new sounds and influences. My connection with Robertico is simply beautiful. His personal way to perform is so unique, I feel dancing when singing with him. 

DM – As I understand it, the repertoire on this tour will focus on classics, including songs from the Buena Vista era. Can we expect any surprises?

OP – Oh, definitely yes. I’m listening to all my albums, talking with the musicians that will be with me in this tour and I’m putting my heart to get a unique set list that will be unforgettable! But it’s a surprise, so you will have to come and see it!

Omara Portuondo, Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, May 1, 8 PM – oldtownschool.org

Interview with Omara Portuondo: “I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Omara Portuondo 2014
Photo credit: Fernand Forcade

By Don Macica –

Many of us made it out to Ravinia last summer to catch the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Adiós Tour.” By this time, sadly, several of the legends who rocketed to worldwide fame in the 1990s were no longer with us, most notably Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén Gonzáles. Still, it was definitely worth the trip up to Highland Park to revel in nostalgia one more time.

There is one member of this club, however, who not only still walks the planet, but has no intention of saying adiós: Omara Portuondo. This year finds the legendary Cuban vocalist back out on the road for her “85 Tour,” named for the birthday that she will celebrate later this month. Don’t mistake this for another nostalgia fest, though. The world tour, which comes to Symphony Center on October 21, finds her accompanied by an all-star band of first rate jazz musicians, including American violinist Regina Carter, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen and Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, whose band (Yandy Martinez, Ramsés Rodríguez and Andrés Coayo) powers the rhythm section.

The standard narrative that accompanies the BVSC phenomenon is that these amazing artists were rescued from obscurity by Ry Cooder and filmmaker  Wim Wenders. There is some truth in that, but it doesn’t apply to all of its members. In fact, Portuondo was actively performing and recording in the years immediately preceding the release of the BVSC album and movie. She has been active separately from the group in the years since as well, singing with everyone from the flamenco star Diego El Cigala to American avant-garde saxophonist David Murray and Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia.

Magia Negra
Omara Portuondo circa 1959

Omara Portuondo was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via e-mail. The following responses have minor edits for clarity.

Don Macica – The common assumption in the United States is that your career, along with many of your colleagues in the film and album Buena Vista Social Club, was revived, even rescued by that project. It’s true that world wide fame followed it, but tell me a bit more about the years from 1967 up until the late 1990’s.

Omara Portuondo – Well, some of us were active. Actually I was invited to join the band because I was recording and they invited me to sing with Ibrahim Ferrer. I started [my career] dancing with my sister at the Tropicana, and from then I joined the Loquibamba, Cuarteto las D’aida, until the moment I recorded my first solo album in 1959, Magia Negra. I joined Orquesta Aragón in the 1970s [and] recorded albums with Adalberto Alvarez and Chucho Valdes… Some people do not know that, but I toured a lot before the success of Buena Vista.

(Editor’s Note: I did a bit of research, and there’s even more to the pre-BVSC years, including a 1983 documentary and being awarded an Alejo Carpentier Award for artistic achievement in 1988.)

DM – After over half a century of singing, what keeps you going? Has your work with younger musicians like Roberto Fonseca introduced another phase?

OP – Music is my life. It’s the source to keep going, along with my son and my granddaughter. I love what I do, and when this happens things are easier. Well, it does not mean that you have to be lazy. You have to work hard, but when things comes from your heart, people can feel it.

DM – You’ll be accompanied by a pair of incredible jazz musicians, Regina Carter and Anat Cohen, who aren’t particularly known for playing Latin music, although Cohen loves Brazilian choro. What can we expect from this collaboration and concert?

OP – Oh, I’m so excited and happy about this. For my 85th anniversary tour I wanted to invite artists that I admire and that could give a personal touch to the music. They are very talented and they understand perfectly the music connection. Your know, music is universal and we are simply enjoying so much of the reunion.

DM – Last summer’s BVSC tour was the “Adiós” tour, but you are still going strong. Any plans for retirement?

OP – Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.
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Omara Portuondo at Symphony Center. Friday, October 21 at 8:00PM. Tickets at cso.org.