There is a bit of a soap opera in the life of Omara Portuondo. The diva of the Buena Vista Social Club was born on October 29, 1930 in the Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso. Her mother, Esperanza Peláez, belonged to a rich family of Spanish ancestry, and hoped she would marry a white man, solvent and with a high social position.
It didn’t happen. She ran away with a tall, handsome, baseball-playing black guy. In the society of the time it was a sacrilege. Then they lived a romance right out of the movies. To her parents and friends she hid her marriage to a black man. If the couple met on the street they didn’t look at or greet each other.
His name was Bartolo Portuondo and was a world-class baseball player who played as an infielder in the Negro Leagues in the United States between 1916 and 1927.
Bartolo also dabbled in the winter baseball classics in Cuba. The father of the future “girlfriend of feeling” was born in the province of Camagüey in the 19th century. He was a friend of the national poet Nicolas Guillen and a lover of good music.
From her childhood, music was a daily occurrence in the Portuondo home. Lacking a gramophone, her parents sang songs and their three daughters who, bewitched, listened from their small wooden chairs while they ate.
At age 15, a teenager, Omara broke into the world of sequins. She tried her luck with dancing, following in the footsteps of his sister Haydee, a member of the prestigious dance company of the Tropicana cabaret.
Much later Omara would recall, “It was a very elegant, but it made no sense for me. I was a shy girl and was ashamed to show my legs. “
Her mother persuaded her not to let the opportunity pass. And so she continued, beginning a career as a dancer who came to form a partnership with the famous dancer Rolando Espinosa.
But what really belonged to her was singing. Weekends, alongside her sister Haydee, she sang American jazz with Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Jose Antonio Mendez and the pianist Frank Emilio.
Suddenly she was overcome by the feeling. When she debuted, at the end of the ‘40s, on the radio, she was presented as “Omara Brown, the girlfriend of feeling.” The name stuck, but not the nickname in English.
In 1950 she was part of the Anacaona orchestra, composed of women. And in 1952, again with Haydee, she joined with a couple of mulatas with the voices of goddesses, who would later become sacred cows in the Cuban singing world: Elena Burke, the lady of feeling and later the mother of Malena Burke, and Moraima Secada, the aunt of the Cuban-American singer Jon Secada.
Accompanying them on the piano was Aida Diestro. The Las D’Aida Quartet made history. They recorded an album with RCA Victor and shared the stage with giants like Edith Piaf, Pedro Vargas, Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve and Benny Moré.
They also accompanied the fabulous Nat King Cole, when he performed at the Tropicana cabaret. As a soloist, Omara accompanied Ernesto Lecuona, Isolina Carrillo and Arsenio Rodríguez, among others.
Her debut solo recording produced with Black Magic was recorded in 1959, the same year that Fidel Castro took power. Three years later, they were on tour in Miami with Las D’Aida Quartet when the missile crisis broke out.
They returned to Havana. Portuondo continued with the group until 1967. Since then she has sung solo, and sometimes, she shares her voice with other performers, as in 1970, when she sang with Aragon Orchestra. She has successfully participated in international festivals.
Omara Portuondo is a versatile performer. She can sing both the rumba and the guaguancó. From a bolero to a ballad. Or a cappella. She is complete. Her version of “She was giving birth to a heart” by Silvio Rodriguez is proverbial.
She has swing, technique and heart. Anyone who has heard her sing boleros knows what I mean. When she sings “Twenty Years” by Maria Teresa Vera she calls forth tears from old men. And not so old men.
When the German Wim Wenders and the American Ry Cooder were traveling through the dirty slums of Havana, in the sidecar of a Russian motorcycle, looking for forgotten musicians for the album and documentary Buena Vista Social Club, they always had in mind a diva. It couldn’t be anyone else but Omara Portuondo.
With Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, and the pianist Ruben Gonzalez, she went around the world and won several Grammys. The last, in the Latin version of 2009, for the best tropical album.
At 80, Omara has not given up. Go, pearl. She is one of the essentials of Cuban song. Her voice is still lush, as it was in those days when she sang with her parents in the living room.
In Cuba, many things are lacking. But we have Omara Portuondo.