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.

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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.

Preview: Caetano Veloso at Symphony Center

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By Don Macica –

There is a saying that goes something like this: If you live long enough, you become respectable. It’s a phrase that comes to mind almost every time I consider the life and music of Caetano Veloso. Revolutionary avant-gardist of the Tropicalia movement in the 1960s and forced into exile, he is now perhaps the ultimate Brazilian icon, on par with his hero, the late João Gilberto. It’s been that way since at least the 1980s, when he was described in the American press as something of a cross between the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson, a massively popular and influential musician that is also a poet and incisive observer of Brazilian society.

I’ve been fortunate to see Veloso in concert twice in the last twenty years, and both times he was accompanied by a full band supporting him with lush harmonics, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and bracing modernism. Now, on the heels of his appearance at the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics with his friend and fellow Tropicalia legend Gilberto Gil, Symphony Center is bringing him to Chicago with just his voice, guitar and one very special guest, samba singer Teresa Cristina, a respected artist in Brazil and founding member of the Carioca samba movement.

Caetano Veloso’s voice, at the age of 74, remains a supple and beautiful instrument. If anything, his phrasing is even better, in the manner of a jazz musician who never stops seeking the most meaningful way to play a series of notes. As an artist, Veloso is still something of an adventurer, seeking new sounds and youthful collaborators, as on his most recent studio release, Abraçaço.

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Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, circa 1970

A better indication to what to expect in this concert, though, might be his recent live album with Gilberto Gil, Dois Amigos, um Século de Música, in which the two old friends from Bahia are accompanied only by their own guitars, singing each others songs from the last 50 years along with favorites of theirs written by others.

Since the mid 1980s, Nonesuch Records has done North America a huge service by releasing Caetano Veloso’s albums here. Now, they are doing the same for Rio de Janeiro native Teresa Cristina, making her new Canta Cartola album, recorded live with guitarist Carlinhos Sete Cordas, available mere months after its Brazilian release. It’s a beautiful and intimately recorded document of a special night in Rio. Her Symphony Center appearance will find her accompanied by the guitarist as well.

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On Canta Cartola, Cristina eschews the exuberant rhythms and high energy level normally associated with samba, instead burrowing into the heart of the songs for the saudade within. Veloso will do much the same in this similarly intimate context, revisiting his 50 year catalog with the sort of nuance that can only come with the simplicity of voice and guitar.

Their Symphony Center show is one of only four scheduled in the United States, and two of them are in New York City. That alone makes this night a special one indeed.
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Caetano Veloso with Teresa Cristina, Symphony Center, Sunday October 16, 7:00PM. Tickets at CSO.org

Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40

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By Don Macica.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s true supergroup, Irakere. The band led by pianist Chucho Valdés didn’t labor in isolation for long. In 1977, a jazz cruise left New Orleans carrying musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and a young Ry Cooder (yes, the same Ry Cooder whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years later) and dropped anchor in Havana. After catching an Irakere performance and being blown away by what they heard, they engaged in some jazz diplomacy back in the U.S. and soon Irakere was known around the world.

In addition to Valdés, the group also featured the young Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. Paquito defected to the United States in 1980 and Sandoval followed 10 years later, yet Chucho stayed the course and Irakere continued as a band until 2005, recording classic albums like Misa Negra along the way.

Chucho is now 74, but if that seems at all elderly to you, remember that his father, the legendary Bebo Valdés, lived to the age of 94 and was producing music until the end, providing the inspiration (and soundtrack) for the wonderful animated film Chico and Rita. Irakere may be no more, but Chucho is still going strong, as evidenced by his work as a solo artist and two recent recordings by his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Anniversaries being what they are, though, 2015 finds Chucho honoring the groundbreaking group he founded with the brand new album Tribute to Irakere –Live in Marciac (Jazz Village) and subsequent tour with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, which will bring him to Symphony Center on November 6.

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The members of the Afro-Cuban Messengers are young enough to count Irakere as influences on their musical development, so you have something of a dream matchup on the Tribute album: Young disciples led by the maestro himself.

Unlike their equally innovative contemporaries Los Van Van, Irakere were first and foremost a jazz ensemble, not a dance orchestra. Their first appearances outside of Cuba were at the Newport and Montreaux Jazz Festivals respectively. Nonetheless, Cuban audiences want to dance, and Irakere’s first big hit was the funk burner Bacalao con Pan, brimming with electric bass, blaring horns and rock guitar wedded to folkloric Cuban percussion and the incandescent virtuosity of Valdés, D’Rivera and Sandoval’s solos. Later on, as the sheer firepower of D’Rivera and Sandoval departed, Valdés reconceived the ensemble’s dynamic by writing stronger arrangements that emphasized the group sound, resulting in extended works like the four-part suite Misa Negra.

This approach to writing and arranging now carries over to the Afro-Cuban Messengers, the name of which is Chucho’s nod to legendary drummer Art Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers. Both of the group’s previous albums, Chucho’s Steps and Border-Free, are unmistakably jazz albums. The former serves as Valdés’ tribute to American jazz while the latter digs deeper into Afro-Latin folklore, but each is clearly the work of a fluid and seasoned jazz ensemble.

On Tribute to Irakere, the Messengers grow from a sextet to a 10 piece orchestra, adding tenor and alto sax plus two additional trumpets, the better to approximate Irakere’s 11 member powerhouse lineup. The album contains a mere 6 selections, but two of them stretch over 17 minutes and none are shorter than 7. Instead of filling the album with old Irakere hits, 4 of the 6 tracks come from the previous Messenger albums, but now arranged to take advantage of Irekere’s trademark sound: A tight and punchy horn section, deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban chants, percussive grooves and powerful soloing, all performed with blow-the-roof-off intensity. There’s also one Irakere classic, Juana 1600, and what you might call a ‘new’ Irakere song as imagined by a younger generation called Afro-Funk, which sounds exactly as you think it would with a title like that, but better.

It’s this 10 member Afro-Cuban Messengers that will hit the Symphony Center stage November 6, and it can be safely assumed that roofs will again be blown. There is a chance that other Irakere classics will be played, as they were in Marciac. I, for one, relish the very idea of hearing Misa Negra live. Whatever comes, though, will be good enough for me.

Chucho Valdés, Irakere 40: Friday, November 6, 8pm at Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

 

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.