Photo: Jay Rochlin


Los Angeles Times / Calendar section / Cover Story
Thursday September 28, 2000




TUCSON -- Omara Portuondo has been around the block so many times she doesn't get dizzy anymore. Now in her 55th year of performing onstage, and only one month from her 70th birthday, Portuondo has become an international phenomenon partly because of her enduring showmanship and partly because of her good fortune in having been knighted into the realm of "The Buena Vista Social Club."

That 1997 album produced by Ry Cooder and the Wim Wenders documentary about its making renewed interest in a group of near-forgotten veteran musicians in Cuba. The album, on Nonesuch Records, sold 1.1 million copies, according to SoundScan, and won a Grammy in 1998; the film got an Oscar nomination.

But Portuondo, the only woman in the group, didn't need to be rescued from obscurity. The Havana-born and -raised singer has become as well known over the years in her home country as Barbra Streisand is in the United States.

Last year she stood out as part of the Buena Vista lineup alongside colleagues Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez in the group's wildly successful North American concert tour. She has returned for an extended tour this fall, this time as the headliner. She will appear Friday at UCLA's Royce Hall and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts with Barbarito Torres, a laud (Cuban lute) player. She returns Oct. 7 for the Hollywood Salsa & Latin Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.

Portuondo's voice sounds stronger this year as a headliner than it was last year as part of the Buena Vista ensemble. She considers this observation and agrees, adding, "It's etiquette. I was one element in a larger show. This time it's my show, and I don't have those restrictions."

Havana's Cabaret Tropicana is Portuondo's home. Best known for its almost cheesy revue of high-kicking and great-looking dancers in revealing glittery costumes, the Tropicana also has showcased major Cuban singing talent. It was there at the end of World War II that a shy 15-year-old Portuondo would watch her sister Haydee rehearse. One day the troupe needed a last-minute replacement, and she hesitantly agreed to fill in. She last performed there just two years ago and is eager to take its stage when she has time between international tours.

"I love the Tropicana," she said in an interview at her hotel here this week. "I have a permanent invitation to perform there. I opened for Nat King Cole at the Tropicana and introduced him. He impressed me so much; he was a lovely black man in a white suit." Portuondo broke into "Unforgettable," imitating Cole for a few lines. She also recalled Tony Bennett at the pre-Castro Tropicana and at the Sans Souci. "I saw Sarah Vaughan, too, but I never sang with her. She was wonderful."

Big-band music from the United States inspired Portuondo and other Cuban musicians back then. "Glenn Miller and also the Dorsey Brothers influenced our music, including boleros, a mix that gave birth to filin," a soft, crooning romantic style that achieved its peak popularity in the 1950s. "The cha-cha-cha was also influenced by North American music, and so was Perez Prado and the mambo."

How History Helped Shape Her Career

Although Portuondo is anything but political, historical events have helped shape her career. She was performing in Florida with her sister when the 1962 Cuban missile crisis erupted. She returned home; Haydee remained. Because so many entertainers in the following years preferred life abroad and far fewer foreigners performed in Cuba, it was easier for those who stayed, Portuondo among them, to advance their careers.

Yet when her solo career was to be launched in October 1967, the death of Communist revolutionary Che Guevara in Bolivia sent the nation into mourning and closed the nightclubs for a spell. Then in 1970, when Fidel Castro exhorted the nation to produce 10 million tons of sugar cane, troupes from the Tropicana, including Portuondo, and other cultural institutions, such as the Ballet Nacional, traveled the countryside entertaining the cane cutters.

I have a theory, I tell her, that the U.S. embargo has actually helped Cuban culture, that its authenticity owes its preservation, in part, to United States foreign policy.

Portuondo's answer turns the statement inside out.

"That's true, but it wasn't North American foreign policy. It was what we did at home. After the triumph of the revolution, the new Ministry of Culture made a sweeping effort to rescue all the different cultures from throughout the island. They established Casas de Cultura in every province, trained art instructors, created a new ballet school and folkloric groups and gave free classes. That's what preserved our culture. I taught popular Cuban dance for a while after the revolution."

Comparison to Legends

Portuondo, who has been compared to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf in their primes, has recently released the album "Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo" (Nonesuch). Much of her current show is drawn from the new CD. "A lot of Latinos have come to the shows," she says with respect and surprise. She has recently headlined in Texas, Colorado and most recently Arizona. "They join in the singing and clapping, and they dance in the aisles."

Onstage, Portuondo moves about as if leading an aerobics class. Earlier this year a British newspaper complimented her "regal presence, accentuated by a considerable sexual magnetism." Her fingers are long and narrow, and her mocha skin as smooth as the Caribbean the day after a hurricane.

Musical director Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, who leads her onstage band of some dozen musicians, playfully refers to her as "la mas sexi," a nickname he encourages the audience to call out as well. "I'm not sure if I'm la sexi diva," she later mischievously confessed, "or la diva sexi."

Earlier in the day I pulled out a 30-year-old album of hers I'd bought from a sidewalk vendor in Havana last year for a dollar, and she went through it commenting on each arrangement and songwriter. Then I produced a 1990 CD of hers, which shows her wearing an Afro that was, frankly, not flattering.

"But I don't use anything artificial in my hair and I never have, not even a straightener. Look. It's all mine." And with that she suddenly yanked off the elastic band that had kept her hair in a neat bun and unleashed her lush, black hair in two thick rolls. Each hand held one roll, extended to their fullest high above her head. "See?"

I also produced a picture of her father, taken when he was a star infielder for Almendares, one of two perennially popular Havana baseball teams. Like many Cuban standouts, Bartolo Portuondo played in the Negro National League in the States after its founding in 1920.

Memories of Her Family

"Look!" she cried out to her son Ariel, who is also her road manager. "It's your grandfather!" He led the Cuban league in stolen bases one year, and he played on the home team when an American squad starring Babe Ruth barnstormed through the island. "I used to go see my Dad play at the Tropical stadium. He became a coach after his playing days were over."

To Portuondo, who has performed with groups from Cuarteto Las D'Aida in the 1950s to the contemporary popular NG La Banda, there is no one "golden age" of Cuban music. "It's cyclical," she says, moving her arms in a wide circle. "There have been various moments of gold in Cuban music. We're at the top of the cycle again right now because we keep inventing as we draw a lot from the past. The Buena Vista boom has been remarkable not only for those of us who are part of it, but for all orquestas that play this type of music.

"Our international schedules are so full it was only a couple of months ago that all of the Buena Vista Social Club could finally get together to play for the Cuban public. We performed at the Karl Marx Theater. We had a packed house with hundreds more in the streets. There were people of all ages. It was incredibly emotional."

For all Portuondo's international travels and notoriety, what was most revealing was not her stage show or the enthusiastic reception American audiences have given her. It is her wristwatch. She always keeps it set to Havana time.

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Tom Miller is the author of Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba (Basic Books).


Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times