Omara Portuondo The Music Is Ours


The diva of Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo, will be basking in the limelight this year in the closing ceremony of the 15th Habano Festival. Although she admits that she doesn’t smoke, she can’t escape from the magic tradition that tags along with Cuban premium cigars

There are experiences that Omara Portuondo, the prima donna of Buena Vista Social Club, would repeat again and again, and she thanks life for giving her the opportunity to witness all that much. 

“Nothing compares to a dawn in Pinar del Rio. I admire the beauty of that prodigious land where the finest tobacco of the world is harvested. That green contrasts with the intense blue of our sky and the impeccable whiteness of clouds... Can you imagine that landscape multiplied in many other sites of this gorgeous island? It would be even more irresistible. And there are still many people who haven’t had the privilege to admire the spectacular view of a tobacco farm. They don’t know what they are missing,” she says with passion. 

“I actually don’t smoke, but my friends have told me that tasting a cigar is like traveling to paradise. I can understand what they mean by getting carried away with that scent that fascinates me. And then, its texture, with those leaves that seem to be lined by veins that carry Cuba’s blood; and its smoke that draws sculptures in the air... That world amazes me. It’s undoubtedly a divine gift given by nature. In fact, I haven’t tasted it, but I’m proud of it because it identifies us, just as our palm trees do, as well as the tocororo and sugar,” says this performer of Cuban music who has been labeled as the eternal girlfriend of feeling.

That’s the reason why the great Omara admits that she couldn’t say no when she was asked to be the star at the show that will bring the fifteenth edition of the International Habano Festival to an end. “As the matter of fact –she stresses– this is not the first time that I hail such a prestigious event with my voice. I was there when Compay Segundo became the leading figure of the gala. That great man of our music, a tobacco fan who was a diehard smoker.” 

“Something strange happens to me with cigars. I feel their aroma and my mind immediately flies back to my childhood. Then, the silhouette of my godfather, Anibal Peña, comes up. When I was a child, he used to sit me on a small wooden chair next to him to teach me how to pluck the wicks off the tobacco leaves. And I was dazzled by the cigars he used to roll with his bare hands, they looked like artworks, so perfect and with so much grace. On the other hand, I can’t forget another important man in our history: Lazaro Peña, a labor union leader I personally met during one of our feeling events in Cayo Hueso (a neighborhood in Havana). He, who worked at El Credito cigar factory and became an acclaimed union leader there, loved music and recited poems.” 

Earlier in this interview, you said something I think you are absolutely right about. You said Cuba is all about the royal palm trees, the tocororo, the sugarcane..., but also Omara Portuondo.

Do you think so? I believe you are overdoing it. Have I gone that far?” she beams, but her authentic humbleness shows that she is kind of confused by my comment.

You’ve gone that far

Maybe you are right, but just like this land has been blessed with its tobacco, rum, sugar, its people..., it has been gifted with music. There are so many fabulous, celebrated performers who I admire and respect. Know what? When I perform overseas, I’m always asked the same: why there are so many fine musicians in Cuba? I think it’s because of the grace of this unique island, bathed by the sea and where the sweltering sun sometimes shows no mercy. 

Of course, we have magnificent art schools, with first-class teachers, but it wouldn’t be enough without the music of our African and Spanish grandparents flowing in every piece of our body. The music is ours. Wherever you go, you find melody: a waving palm tree, birds chirping, the gait of women and men as they walk... We don’t have oil, gold or diamonds, but we do have the most genuine music. That’s one of our jewels. Tobacco is another one.

That certainly explains the reason why music became so yours since you were just a child.

There is a reality: nature gives you, or not, special talents to sing. And my parents, since I was just a little girl, knew I had that gift. They weren’t musicians, but they were born with well-tuned voices and privileged ears for music.  

I will never forget how they used to sing as a duet during our lunch time or dinner. One day, although my two siblings also had skills, my father called me: “Omarita, sit here. Let’s see if you can do this melody”. Then, with the first voice, he sang Veinte años. Que te importa que te ame, si tu no me quieres ya... (Omara starts singing and the place where we are talking suddenly gets lit up). And I followed his lead. 

He looked at me with a peculiar light in his eyes and insisted: “Ok, let’s try another melody”, and used the second voice to belt out Maria Teresa Vera’s immortal song, the one I can’t stop singing. “But, Omarita, you are going to be a great singer,” he predicted. “You will be representing your country all over the world.” Something he had already done as a baseball player. He was among the first Cuban black players that traveled to the United States to play baseball there.

Well, that was how I became involved with music. Afterwards, life gave me the opportunity to meet people from the feeling world when I was in high school. I had even danced with Alberto Alonso and Sonia Calero, once I danced in Tropicana to replace a girl that, when the show was about to be premiered, had problems with the choreographic memory and rhythm... That’s how I have lived meaningful moments, just like meeting Luis Carbonell and working with him on stage. While he was reciting, I was winging it because Alberto Alonso trusted me. Likewise, I met undisputed stars such as Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve, Esther Borja, that admirable woman.

And, well, the rest of the story has already been told: I was a member of Anacaona Orchestra, the Orlando de la Rosa and D’Aida quartets. I’ve had an intense career as a soloist and had a say in the Buena Vista Social Club project.

What’s Omara’s secret to preserve that voice that ranges from the sublime voice to…?

The ridiculous? (My question comes to an end with a smile). Perhaps it’s because I love what I do endlessly. 

So, is there no formula?

None. It’s the gift of nature.

No gargles or egg whites?

No, no, gargles are only needed when I have a sore throat, and egg whites to make meringue.