Omara Portuondo: Seasons in the sun

Buena Vista Social Club made Omara Portuondo a global star, but her home will always be Cuba, she tells Jane Cornwell
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The Independent Culture

"So much change." Omara Portuondo, 73, sighs as she gazes out of the window of a Paris hotel at the Place de la République below. "I first came here 30 years ago. Things are very different." Head wrapped in trademark black scarf, hands on slim hips, she watches figures hurrying in and out of chain stores, cars zipping into underground car parks, and points out the gaggle of African vendors at the foot of the central monument. "Everything changes, for good, for bad. There is more multiculturalism, but the world is also in a state of stress and commotion. So it is nice," she adds, arranging herself on a couch, "to enjoy music that relaxes you. That brings a smile to your face."

"So much change." Omara Portuondo, 73, sighs as she gazes out of the window of a Paris hotel at the Place de la République below. "I first came here 30 years ago. Things are very different." Head wrapped in trademark black scarf, hands on slim hips, she watches figures hurrying in and out of chain stores, cars zipping into underground car parks, and points out the gaggle of African vendors at the foot of the central monument. "Everything changes, for good, for bad. There is more multiculturalism, but the world is also in a state of stress and commotion. So it is nice," she adds, arranging herself on a couch, "to enjoy music that relaxes you. That brings a smile to your face."

The Cuban diva has been singing up smiles for more than half a century. Global celebrity might not have arrived until 1997 - after she participated in the Grammy award-winning Buena Vista Social Club album - but back home, in sepia-tinted Havana, Omara Pelaaz Portuondo is known as the "Fiancée of Filin", mistress of the jazz-inflected love songs that came of age in the 1940s and feel gloriously timeless now. The Cubans who wave to her on the street, or help carry her shopping up to her high-rise apartment on the seaside Malecon boulevard, have been buying her cassettes for as long as they can remember. (The only CDs are in the tourist shops.) She has been a presence on radio, on TV, in dancehalls, bars, at the glitzy Tropicana Club, for decades. In Cuba, Portuondo is as much a part of life as cigars and the revolution, which she has always supported but won't talk about today.

She says that she has never dreamed of living anywhere else. "Nature has been very generous with Cuba. The tropical climate, the ever-present sun, the different races and cultures. It has made us a very musical nation." Her wonderful new album, Flor de Amor, a mix of melancholic love songs with varied arrangements - some with lush strings and trombone solos, others with keyboards and bata drums, most with ringing guitars - recaptures much of this essence. Afro-Brazilian flourishes play up Cuba's African links, but it is still the classic repertoire, still vintage-era sweet. Portuondo's voice sounds warmer, more intimate than it did on the Buena Vista album ("It was etiquette to hold back"), and more so than on her 2000 solo debut for the same label, World Circuit. "This time I sang closer to the microphone," she shrugs.

The Buena Vista virtuosi were elderly to begin with; the pianist Ruben Gonzalez and guitarist Compay Segundo have both died recently ("I miss those old guys terribly"). The singer Ibrahim Ferrer - whose ice-melting duet with Portuondo was a highlight of Wim Wenders' 1999 documentary - has just overcome a nasty bout of bronchitis.

Portuondo, however, shows no signs of slowing down. Her honeyed vocals and glamourous stage presence suggest a much younger woman, which makes the glimpse of support bandages under her smart trousers all the more startling. Being in Paris makes her reminisce: "I walk around expecting to see Charles Aznavour, Michel Legrand, or little Edith Piaf." She may bump into Aznavour, who happens to be playing in town this week. Not that she'll be going: "I saw him long ago," she smiles, tapping her forehead; "it's all in here."

Portuondo's first memories are musical. Too poor to afford a record-player, her Afro-Cuban father and Spanish mother used to sing to each other in their tiny Havana flat. Songs such as the bittersweet "Viente Años", of which she has recorded numerous versions, and the rhythmic "Tabu", a take on black/white relations and slavery that features on Flor de Amor. "That track feels very personal. I never saw my parents walk down the street together, but they sang all the time at home. Then, when they got a radio, we listened to everything - mambo, guajira, the popular Cuban styles, as well as Bach and Chopin."

At the end of the Second World War, a teenage Omara joined her sister Haydee as a dancer at the Tropicana Club, then toured the mambo-loving US with the vocal trio Loquibambia Swing. Later, she co-founded the legendary female vocal ensemble Cuarteto Las D'Aida. They sang boleros, danzones, cha-cha-chas - the female harmony vocals on Flor de Amor are partly in homage to them.

Las D'Aida shared bills with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. They were in Miami when the Cuban missile crisis struck. Haydee stayed; Omara flew back and went solo. She married, had a son, Ariel - now a genial fortysomething who is also her manager - and got divorced. She performed, as she still does, up and down Cuba, included revolutionary nueva-trova songs in her repertoire, represented her country at the Sopot Festival in Poland and the Fête de l'Humanité in France.

Asked whether she feels the US sanctions have at least helped to preserve Cuba's authenticity, she raises a pencilled eyebrow, bemused. "Our culture is respected and looked after from within. There are casas de cultura, art instructors, ballet schools, folkloric groups. Much of the younger generation is participating." She sits up a little straighter. "Things are going well. The return to vintage-era music has been good for all of Cuba," she says. "Especially the young musicians, who got to discover the old-fashioned way of playing songs." Portuondo smiles. " Gracia la vida," she says. "Life is beautiful. It's as simple as that."

Omara Portuondo plays the Royal Festival Hall, London on 30 April; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3 May; and Colston Hall, Bristol, 5 May

'Flor de Amor' is released by World Circuit on 3 May

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