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Born on October 29, 1930, in Havana, Cuba; daughter of Bartolo Portuondo (a baseball player and coach); children: Ariel (son).
For almost 50 years, Omara Portuondo sang and performed nonstop in her native Cuba, where she came to represent a genre of music called filin’–a Spanish pronunciation of the word “feeling.” Filin’ is a style of ballad that combines classic American torch songs with Cuban-inflected jazz. Famous throughout the island, Portuondo made her solo concert debut in the United States in 1997 at Carnegie Hall as the only female member of the award-winning Buena Vista Social Club. Now in her seventies, Portuondo has been introduced to the world and a new generation a fans through extensive touring.
Born on October 29, 1930, in Havana, Cuba, Portuondo was one of three daughters. Her father Bartolo Portuondo was a black baseball player who played for the Cuban team Almandares and spent time in the American Negro National League as well. When Portuondo’s mother married Bartolo she was disowned by her wealthy Spanish family, which did not approve of the interracial marriage. Cuban society frowned on mixed marriages as well, preventing her parents from even acknowledging each other in public.
Despite the prejudice that surrounded them, their home life was comfortable. Portuondo learned traditional Cuban songs from her parents, who enjoyed singing. Her introduction to performing came through her older sister Haydee, a dancer at Havana’s famous Tropicana Club. Portuondo often attended rehearsals to watch her sister dance. One day the troupe was short a dancer and they asked Portuondo to join them. She knew all the dances by heart, but she hesitated. Her mother was enthusiastic, on the other hand, as Portuondo told Jane Cornwell of the Independent: “I was very shy and ashamed to show my legs. Then my mother said, ‘Do it for me. You’ll see, one day you’ll represent your country worldwide with your art.'”
Not long after she started dancing at the Tropicana, Portuondo began singing as well. Her first gig as singer was with Loquibambia, a jazz swing band popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Loquibambia was featured on the daily radio show Mil Diez, giving Portuondo national exposure. She sang with other bands bands as well, including Los Cuartetos de Facundo Rivero, Orlando de la Rosa, and the all-female Orquesta Anacaona.
In 1952 Portuondo and her sister formed the quartet Las d’Aida. The group toured Europe and the United States, becoming popular in France and Spain. They also landed a standing gig in Florida and sang backup for American jazz singer Nat King Cole when he performed at the Tropicana. Politics intruded, however, in 1962: the group was performing in Florida when the Cuban missile crisis erupted. Haydee chose to stay in Florida; Portuondo and the others returned to Cuba. Las d’Aida remained together until 1967 when Portuondo decided to launch her solo career. Of her time with the group, Portuondo told Cornwell, “We used to sing and dance with a spontaneity that won the public over…. We were acclaimed everywhere.”
The Cuban revolution and the missile crisis, which forced many of Cuba’s finest talents into exile, created an opportunity for Portuondo to make a name for herself. After 15 years with Las d’Aida, Portuondo stepped out on her own. Although her solo career was hampered at first by the national mourning imposed after the death of Communist activist Che Guevera, eventually she began to represent Cuba in competitions and performances worldwide.
Throughout the 1970s Portuondo performed often at the Tropicana and other Cuban venues. She was also sent to Poland to sing at the Sopot Festival, the socialist version of the Eurovision Song Contest, and to Paris for the Fête d’Humanité. She traveled to Finland and Japan with the group Orquesta Aragon. Her singing brought comparisons with France’s own Edith Piaf.
Besides the early influence of her parents, Portuondo notes a familiar list of musical influences. She explained to John Soeder of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, “I’ve always admired American music…. In Cuba, there always has been great access to American music, so I grew up listening to the classics.” She is inspired by big bands and the performers like Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughn who made appearances at the Tropicana. She also admires traditional Cuban ballads, telling Jan Fairley of the the Scotsman, that she holds Cuba’s first woman composer and singer, Maria Teresa Vera, in great esteem, “I admired her all my life but I was always in awe of her.”
Not unlike the twist of fate that started her career at the Tropicana, Portuondo experienced another happy accident that launched her into worldwide prominence late in her career. In 1996 she was in a studio in Havana working on a recording with salsa singer Isaac Delgado. In the same studio was American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who was recording the Buena Vista Social Club CD with 90-year-old Compay Segundo. Segunda, a longtime friend of Portuondo’s, invited her over to their recording session.
Cooder asked Portuondo to join the troupe of Cuban old-timers he had put together, the Buena Vista Social Club, which was the subject of a film by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. She agreed, becoming the troupe’s only female member. The film and CD–particularly a duet she sang with Ibrahim Ferrer–gave Portuondo international recognition for the first time in her career. She spent the next year touring with the Buena Vista Social Club, debuting in the United States at the age of 67.
In 2000 Portuondo released her own solo album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo, which spent over six months in the top 50 albums on Billboard’s Latin and World Music lists and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Traditional Tropical Latin Album. The following year Portuondo and her 14-piece backup band went on a world tour, earning rave reviews wherever they performed. James Griffiths of the Guardian described one of her performances, “Her elastic voice negotiated some truly devious melodies with ease, somehow managing to sound joyful and heartbroken at the same time.”
When asked about her return to the international spotlight, Portuondo told Bob Young of the Boston Herald, “It is like a fairy tale…. But it hasn’t taken me by surprise because even though I wasn’t sure that this was going to happen, from a very early age I wanted it to happen.”