Omara Portuondo She Will Always Have Her Own Story
By:Idania Machado Photos: Lourdes Noriega, Roberto Bello & Prensa Latina
Her performance in Toronto in 2005, as on so many other occasions, was a hit. It was reported on www.torontohispano.com in its concert review: "On Saturday July 2, 2005, Roy Thomson Hall broke its usual formal protocol and Omara urged the audience to not only clap to the rhythm of the music but also to move to it while standing up." For those who have seen and heard her, it is not difficult to believe that people can't remain still while she performs.
Omara is just one of those artists who has shined brightly ever since she started singing. Her performances were always so special that she earned herself nicknames at the two most important stages of her career. First she was La Novia del Filin or "Feeling's Sweetheart" during that extraordinary Cuban musical movement of the 60's which grouped restless young people with a common denominator: to sing from their soul.
Decades later, at an age when few artists are able to stay at the top of popularity, she became La Dama or "the Lady" of the Buena Vista Social Club. Of course, she is not the type of lady who dwells only on formalities and keeping up appearances, as was evidenced in Toronto.
Her beautiful and well-preserved voice and a very stable career have respect for the rest of the artists. On any of the stages where she has performed, with the way she carries on with the audience, she is always an incomparable and charming person.
When I interviewed her, I was able to see that despite being in her seventies, she never speaks of her age. Omara has the explosive quality of a twenty-year old who is enjoying her success for the first time. And not because she is lacking in any composure or maturity; there's enough of these two qualities in this artist.
With that lively sparkle in her eyes, she always speaks of her work with the emotion of a debutante.
The skin and the features of this woman born in Havana in 1930 tum her into a beautiful woman. Always in a rush and inundated with demands, it is still easy to speak to Omara. Serious whenever it has to do with her work and always mentioning others with the generosity of those who are truly great.
Very sure, quick and concise when answering questions and at timely moments, cracking a joke.
Where did you inherit that Cuban flair which you always show?
-That you get if you are born in Cuba.
Do you feel privileged for having triumphed in your own land and abroad?
-I've been privileged at all times whenever I have been able to do things that interest me. While growing up, my father used to say that I had natural talent and my mother encouraged me to do this work. I only wish they could enjoy it now.
[She has always been closely linked to two singers throughout her career, Moraima Secada and Elena Burke. They were in a group together named Las D 'Aida and even when each of them went on to solo careers, occasionally they would get together to sing.]
Would you like to share the stage with your memorable amigas and the Buena Vista Social Club?
-Not only with them. I would love to have there people such as Aida Diestro and my sister Haydee. I miss them so and I can recall those times when we used to sing together.
In this international project of the Buena Vista Social Club, you have been compared to international artists of great importance. How do you feel about that?
-I am honored. I've been asked if I'm the Billy Holiday of Cuba, or the Edith Piaf, the Sara Vaughan. I had the opportunity of seeing Piaf, Vaughan and Ella Fiztgerald, but not Holiday, whom I equally admire. But we have Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve, Benny More, Esther Borja, Emesto Lecuona, and Celina Gonzalez. Watching them has been like receiving master lectures from them. I think I have a little bit from each one of them. They are nearer to me in so many ways.
Is there a handing off at this point in time?
-There are always great new stars. In this country we have extraordinary musical talents. And those studying in the art schools are superb and are given excellent preparation.
Do you see yourself as an accomplished artist in the full and complete sense of the word?
-I feel totally fulfilled. I don't have a boyfriend now but I have a son who is wonderful.
Is he a musician?
-He is my personal manager and not because he's my son, but because he is very good. Every mother says the same thing, but if you have one like mine, then it's just fair to repeat it. Now that we work together, he understands what happened with me when he was a small boy and we had to be apart on many occasions due to my tours.
When you say you feel totally fulfilled, do you also refer to your work?
-Well, you always want more, to sing or perform with someone you've never had the opportunity of doing so. But what has happened to me with Buena Vista is unimaginable. I wished for it so much but being part of it has been the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
What about the facet of being an actress?
-Well, the fact is that I had other intentions aside from music. At one point, I wanted to be director of musical programs on television. Luckily, they didn't let me. But I never thought of becoming an actress, though I was a ballerina. I featured in two important Cuban films and for me that was very important.
The Anacaona Orchestra, Las D'Aida Quartet, Loquibambia Swing, Filin, Bolero, Son, Guajira, Cha Cha Chti, Buena Vista; what does it mean for you to have been present in so many unforgettable moments in Cuban music and been able to successfully sing so many of its best genres?
-Just imagine it's like asking you what it has meant to you to interview or write about things that are very important to you. It's true that I've been lucky that the audience has always received me so lovingly, which is what makes me still want to go on. I would summarize it by saying that in the end, you'll always have your own story and this is going to be mine.