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.

The door is open. What’s next from Cuban music?

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Roberto Fonseca and Danay Suárez

By Don Macica.

Ever since Presidents Obama and Castro made their historic joint announcement in December 2014, many have been wondering, “What’s next?” Here at Agúzate, of course, we cover music and culture, so our thoughts have turned to what is presumably a coming wave of Cuban music. Early signs are good. Both Buena Vista Social Club and the legendary Los Van Van visited Chicago this summer, while the Festival Cubano presented Miguelito Cuni, Jr. and Pedrito Calvo. Chucho Valdés is coming to Symphony Center this fall.

Conspicuously absent, though, is a younger generation of Cuban artists. Recent appearances have been few and far between. Mayne Stage presented pianist Roberto Fonseca last fall, and the last year or so has also seen shows from singers Melvis Santa at Sabor a Café and Danay Suárez at the Unisono Festival in Pilsen. And, of course, the French-Cuban sister duo Ibeyi, who are garnering tons of stateside attention, were just at Thalia Hall. But as the recent multi-million dollar international deal recently signed between entertainment giant Sony and the Cuban label EGREM demonstrates, both record companies and concert promoters are clearly looking to Cuba for a good return on investment.

Young artists are, of course, the key to any future that includes Cuban music. The point was driven home to me at the recent Chicago Jazz Festival, when Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who has been traveling to Cuba since the 1980’s, brought the young all-female Cuban ensemble Maqueque to the Pritzker stage, where their performance prompted multiple standing ovations and the only audience demanded encore that I had witnessed all weekend.

Here, then, is my list of Cuban artists you are likely to hear more of soon.

Descemer Bueno – Much of the Spanish speaking world has likely already heard singer-songwriter and producer Descemer Bueno without realizing it due to Enrique Iglesias’s recent reggaeton-tinged cover of his song Bailando. Bueno has been splitting his time between the U.S. and Cuba for several years, having first come to notice way back in the 90s as a member of Yerba Buena. At the age of 44, Bueno isn’t a kid anymore, and some of his recent output reflects a slight drift toward adult-contemporary blandness. However, his recent song Habana would not have sounded out of place performed by Yerba Buena.

Diana Fuentes – Already signed by Sony, Diana Fuentes is perhaps a step ahead of some of her Cuban colleagues in terms of reaching a U.S. audience. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s married to Calle 13’s Eduardo Cabra and that he produced her latest album, Planeta Planetario. But she’s been making music in Cuba for over 15 years, working with stars like Carlos Varela and X Alfonso. Her early work showed influences of soul and R&B, but Planetario places her squarely in the singer-songwriter camp, where her music would be right at home alongside alt-Latino artists like Gaby Moreno, Julieta Venegas or Carla Morrison.

Los Aldeanos – Before the U.S. door to Cuban music slammed shut during the Bush presidency, it seemed that the hip hop group Orishas was ready to make a big impact. They even had a song featured in the mainstream Hollywood film Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. Unfortunately, Orishas broke up in 2010. Into the breach steps Los Aldeanos. You might recognize the duo of Aldo and El B from their collaboration Si Te Preguntan on Ana Tijoux’s La Bala. Like the best hip hop, their lyrics take unflinching aim at society’s injustices, so much so that they’ve endured criticism from the Cuban government.

Daymé Arocena – While the recent Maqueque concert at the Chicago Jazz Fest was dominated aurally by Jane Bunnett’s virtuosic saxophone, it’s very likely that the eyes and ears of the audience were often riveted on the woman standing front and center, Daymé Arocena. A powerful, deep voiced singer in a jazz vein, she also channels the santos with every syllable and move. If there wasn’t a category for santería jazz before, there is now.

Danay Suárez – Another jazz-influenced singer is Danay Suárez, an MC who moves more in the hip hop side of things, though her new EP finds her singing more and backed by a jazz combo led by Roberto Fonseca.  Her flow and rapid musical evolution draw favorable comparisons to Ana Tijoux. Both Suárez and the previously mentioned Daymé Arocena were featured prominently on DJ/producer Gilles Peterson’s series of Havana Cultura recordings.

Roberto Fonseca – Although he was just here in October 2014, I’d be remiss if I didn’t return to Roberto Fonseca for a moment. The pianist and composer effortlessly straddles several musical worlds. He’s worked with legends like Omara Portuondo and the late Ibrahim Ferrer, but also the dynamic young Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. He’s largely responsible for putting the band together for and producing the aforementioned Havana Cultura sessions of young Cuban artists. His own music freely combines elements from jazz, Cuban son, electronic sampling and African rhythms to startling effect.

Of course, any list of six artists is going to leave off a lot more than it includes, but that’s the beauty of it, yes? There are quite literally hundreds of young, creative Cubans that deserve to be heard. So head to the beach, and wait for the waves to come in. After all, they start a mere 90 miles away.

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.