Saturday, June 25, 2005 - Omara Portuondo - Sing it once more with filin - Sing it once more with filin

Jun. 25, 2005. 01:00 AM

Sing it once more with filin
Omara Portuondo is the undisputed diva of Cuba

Storied career revived by Buena Vista Social Club


HAVANA—Omara Portuondo seems to glide across the cool ornamental-tiled lobby of Havana's Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a diminutive diva in a floor-length white cotton dress.

A brilliant turquoise turban shows off her patrician profile and smooth, unlined skin as she is shyly approached by fans, who lean down to deliver the traditional Cuban greeting, a loud smacking kiss on one cheek.

The storied art deco hotel was built in 1930, the same year she was born. Both are Cuban landmarks of a sort. At age 74, Portuondo is among the last living links to the country's golden age of tropical music.

A singer with a rich, silken voice seemingly untouched by age, she popularized the filin (feeling) style of singing 45 years ago — the emotive, dramatically rendered ballads that were enormously popular in Cuba through the late '60s.

"This movement was invented by men, but I was the first woman," she says through a translator as she sits on an overstuffed and fussy red sofa in a parlour-like room off the historic hotel's main lobby.

Plans to chat on the terrace enjoying the breeze across Havana Bay were changed when Portuondo's fans — both Cuban and foreign visitors — proved too distracting.

Until 1999, Portuondo was all but unknown in greater North America. All that changed when filmgoers met her, singer Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and a host of other aging Cuban stars in Wim Wenders' critically acclaimed movie Buena Vista Social Club.

Portuondo plays Roy Thomson Hall July 2, backed by a 13-piece band that includes two fellow stars of the film — double bass player Chachaito Lopez and laoud player Barbarito Torres.

Before Buena Vista, Portuondo was a star in her homeland, having worked with American singers such as Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole at Havana's famous open-air nightspot, Club Tropicana.

She had also toured in Europe and America in the 1950s, both as a solo artist and with the four-member female group Cuarteto d'Aida, which included her sister.

Although the other artists who first recorded as the Buena Vista Social Club in 1996 had faded into obscurity (before being rediscovered, Ferrer was shining shoes to supplement his pension), Portuondo had continued working.

It was pure luck that brought Portuondo into Egrem recording studios in Havana for the Buena Vista sessions. Producer Juan de Marcos Gonzalez was looking for a female voice and couldn't find the proper fit. Frustrated, he decided to go for a beer in the bar downstairs, passing another studio where Portuondo was recording a bolero album. As soon as he saw her, "I knew I had the voice I was looking for," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Havana.

She was asked to record a duet with Ferrer, the moving ballad "Silencio." Viewers of the film tend to cite the emotional scene on stage at Carnegie Hall where the duo performs this number as their favourite moment in the movie (as does Wenders).

As Portuondo and Ferrer finish and take their bows, she hesitates before rising and turns to her partner to reveal a face streaked with tears. Tenderly, Ferrer uses his hand to wipe them away.

Moviegoers may assume Portuondo was overcome with emotion for the enormity of her moment on stage, singing at last in Carnegie Hall. But her tears were not for herself.

"For Ibrahim," she says with a nod.

"This moment for me was the moment the world knew about Ibrahim Ferrer. I had met him before, but suddenly in this moment it was the cementing of our friendship," she continues. "We were very, very happy to have the pleasure to sing together. It was his time and he sang beautifully in Carnegie Hall, a place that was so special."

Which is not to say singing on that historic New York stage didn't have great meaning for Portuondo, who recalls listening to radio broadcasts from the concert hall as a child.

Portuondo's childhood is something of a fascination for Cubans, all of whom seem to know the romantic story of her parents' marriage. Her mother was white, born into a wealthy Spanish household. When she fell in love with a black baseball player on Cuba's national team, the son of a waiter and a house cleaner, her family was scandalized.

Portuondo recalls her childhood home being filled with music. Her parents would sing duets. And she would sing along with them.

"That was the first time I heard `Veinte Años,'" she says of the ballad that was to become her signature song.

"This kind of story is the answer to her Cubanity," says Gonzalez, a word he has coined to define musicians who are true to their Cuban roots.

"I think that Omara is one of the most important singers I have heard in my life," he says, adding she has a rare capacity for perfect pitch. "I have heard that Omara Portuondo is the Sarah Vaughan of Cuba. I can say Sarah Vaughan was the Omara Portuondo of the American culture.

"I compare her to Maria Callas .... She has a special feeling and special Cubanity when she is on stage. When you are listening to her you are in touch with the Cuban culture."

Portuondo looks secretly pleased when she hears about Gonzalez's praise, but demurs.

"Juan de Marcos is a fan, of course, and he believes in Cuba and the history of Cuban music, but I say with humility I cannot compare myself with Maria Callas. But I am the diva of Cuba."

Diva she may be, but Portuondo is a genial one. She has cancelled a concert in Cancun, Mexico to be here for the interview.

"The Toronto Star is a priority," she says with a small shrug. "And the Canadian fans."

Portuondo says she is especially fond of Toronto and gestures to a gold and enamel pendant of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti she's wearing, bought in Canada while on tour several years ago.

Still energetic on stage, Portuondo has been dubbed La Chica Mas Sexy de Cuba (the sexiest girl in Cuba).

She smiles when she hears that her voice has only improved and mellowed with the passing years, perhaps like wine.

She shakes her head. "No," she says. "Like fine Cuban rum."


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