At 77, Omara Portuondo is an elder stateswoman of world music. Here she tells Frederick Bernas about her new album, Gracias, and reflects on a long life of innovation, cultural enterprise and funny stories.
With a musical career spanning 60 years and counting, Omara Portuondo is far from finished. “It is never enough, there is always more to do, there is always something new,” she states from a comfy couch in the top-floor bar of a London hotel. It’s early Friday morning and the singer is probably not too enthralled by the prospect of a day with the media.
However, she speaks enthusiastically about her new CD, Gracias, which was released on September 25. “I selected these tracks because they are very popular and people know them in Cuba. I like all of these songs and I wanted to work with younger people who play modern music which is still rooted in tradition.” Indeed, the backing band for this 13-track disc features the likes of jazz bass virtuoso Avishai Cohen and rising Cuban star Roberto Fonseca on piano. Other guest appearances include Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, sweet-voiced Richard Bona from Cameroon, veteran pianist Chucho Valdés and Brazilian crooner Chico Buarque.
“The music doesn’t know the barriers of age or language,” she continues. “I wanted to bring everyone together to celebrate 60 years. I’ve done lots of records; this time I wanted to work with songs I’ve done before but make them more contemporary, more actual.” Easily discernible from its title, the album is a gesture of appreciation — “I wanted to say thank you to all these people: my family, musicians, authors, composers, the public, everyone who has helped me.”
In the early years, Omara learnt traditional songs from her parents and became a professional dancer in 1945. Swapping her dancing shoes for a mic, she was then part of several innovative movements in Cuban music, with fusion across genres such as jazz, bossa and other Latin styles. Her debut album was released in 1959 and for the next 40 years she worked steadily on different projects, mostly solo, including the Buena Vista Social Club.
A worldwide phenomenon emerged: Wim Wenders produced a compelling documentary and World Circuit Records released an album of the same name. Portuondo and others skyrocketed to international fame almost overnight, and she identifies this as the highlight of her musical life so far. “It made Cuban music known all over the world. I had been to Finland, Japan, other countries, but then with the Buena Vista Social Club everything went global. There was a collective feeling of joy and it made me very happy. I have huge pride that I worked with these musicians, sang these songs.”
Had she expected such a boom of interest in Cuban music? “It’s a difficult thing, it was a coincidence. It happened organically, without thinking about it — [producer] Nick Gold, Wim Wenders and [guitarist/producer] Ry Cooder were there to work on the project and it just happened. We never really imagined it was going to be so successful. The record was going to be made anyway. You just need to be in the right place at the right time for an opportune moment!”
Portuondo already had a considerable reputation in Cuba: wonderful images from Wenders’ film of her walking through Havana, singing choruses of popular tunes with members of the public, illustrate her significance in domestic culture. She maintains that her life “didn’t really change” when her fame acquired this international dimension, but it perhaps fostered a heightened sense of consciousness at being a global ambassador for the little island’s artistic scene. “I don’t feel pressure from fans to produce a good album, but I feel responsibility that I am representing the music of a country. I feel like the public are on my side. And I don’t really feel the high expectations because I am part of a team; the musicians with me are young, and they have won prizes in jazz festivals. They really help me to move forward.”
Cuban influence on world music is disproportionate to the size of its population — the nation has a history of producing great players who have collaborated fruitfully with foreign artists, particularly in the field of jazz. Dizzy Gillespie was one of the first to break away from the American mainstream he’d helped create, venturing into what is now known as Latin jazz to produce a series of albums which defined the sub-genre. Omara offers an insightful explanation, arguing, “It’s no so much that Cuba is an influence, we’ve been very well-informed.
“Even though it’s a small country, 11 million inhabitants, we still receive information. I knew the Beatles, I sung their songs, I sung with Nat King Cole, I sung Italian songs, American, English… We had people on TV from Italy, North America, Mexico, so we all saw that. Cuba has always been very well-informed on what’s going on in the outside world — whether it is music, film, recordings or whatever.”
In terms of the future, she has prudent words: “I see it like any other country in the world. It all depends on the youth, the opportunities. Cuba is subject to a lot of things — for example, hurricanes — but I see it as any other country.” Her tone possesses a grandmotherly air of wisdom on the subject, and she speaks brightly of new Cuban musical talent. “There are so, so many musicians to look out for! They are making all kinds of music, and lots of young people ask to work with me — for example, I have worked with a rapper on something really funky, very upbeat. There is a lot of musical interest from young people in Cuba.”
Like any grandparent, Omara has a wealth of random tales — she bursts into life when asked about comical memories, animatedly recounting the time when “I was singing with a quartet live on TV, and one of the other girls swallowed a fly! It flew into her mouth as we were ending a song, and we didn’t realise she had run away!
“Lots of unexpected things happen on stage. There was another time when the heel of my shoe wedged into a little gap in the stage live on TV and I fell down! And another time, when we were in Mexico preparing for a show, there was an earthquake while I was on the toilet — we didn’t know what was going on!”
The warmth of her personality shines through, a characteristic that has endeared her to music lovers the world over. This public familiarity as one of the queens of Latin music is aptly demonstrated by the fact her surname has been omitted from the cover of Gracias, a risky luxury few other musicians could afford. Her expressive, compassionate voice can be recognised instantly — it’s a “gift” she is profoundly grateful for. “I am lucky to be able to do things with my voice musically. Other people might be more limited, but I can, so I am always going to find something new and something to innovate.”
As for motivation, another crucial facet to her thinking is creative exchange: “I did all this so I could spread culture to other countries in the world, and I think I have succeeded. My father taught me all the old Cuban songs when I was a young girl and I’ve been singing them for more than 50 years now.” Did she think it would come this far? “It’s not something you think about, it’s something that happens. It doesn’t matter about the language. It’s not something I thought ahead about. I’m doing something I like, so I will always keep going: I never tire of singing, I will not stop singing until one day when I might have to!”