Watching 70-year-old Cuban diva Omara Portuondo prance around on stage makes one wonder what they do in Cuba to maintain such vitality. Portuondo, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club who performed at the Warner Theater Saturday, attributes her continued success to something more important: love.
What we are doing is so much full of love, Portuondo said. In our case, we love so much what we are doing, that’s probably the main secret of our success.
Although she has been a household name in Cuba for almost 50 years, icy U.S.-Cuba relations prevented any tours in this country since her last visit in 1962. In the wake of a Grammy Award-winning album, Buena Vista Social Club musicians such as Portuondo and Barbarito Torres, who appeared with the diva Saturday, have benefited from a renewed appreciation for Cuban jazz.
For us, the older generation, to have our music now in the place that we always felt it deserved, is a great personal satisfaction, Portuondo said.
Portuondo, a Havana native, grew up surrounded by music and began dancing and singing when she was 15. Soon she was known as the fianc? of feeling, referring to the Cubanised version of bossa nova tied with American jazz influences that she helped make popular.
Portuondo’s popularity brought her to the United States, where she toured with her famous quartet. The group performed with artists such as Nat King Cole until members were forced to return to Cuba in the wake of the diplomatic break between the United States and Cuba in 1962. The Castro years proved challenging for musicians to continue their world-wide exposure, and it wasn’t until Ry Cooder arrived in Cuba to record Buena Vista that Portuondo – who thankfully happened to be in the studio the day Cooder walked in – received the international attention she deserved for so many years.
Portuondo performed many songs from her upcoming album – the third in the Buena Vista Social Club Presents series – including such sentimental favorites as Veinte Anos. The Cuban diva allowed her band to show off its talent as the pace livened and the crowd could not help but clap in unison to the invigorating rhythms. Supported by an 11-man band with horns, Portuondo’s voice has remained as strong as ever, as she belted out many of the bolero love songs that she made famous.
Buena Vista veteran Barbarito Torres, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest lute players in the world, also showed up with a band of his own. Hailing from Cuban countryside, Barbarito is not the slick urban singer but a more rustic cowboy-like figure who remains true to musica guajira, which combines the folklore of his native region into Cuban blues. Torres has found ways to incorporate modern musical influences in original song forms, giving rise to his own fresh, stylized version.
Torres carries a captivating stage presence. The crowd was treated to the Cuban equivalent of a vaudeville act as he played the lute behind his back and then joined his guitarist in playing the same guitar – their four hands producing a wonderful sound. Torres also released a new album that is sure to spice up a quiet night.
So many traditional Cuban musicians are still playing enchanting rhythms, touring and enjoying themselves, it makes one wonder just how much therapeutic value lies within each measure.