Return of the rhythm queen

Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo may be an international star but she still does her own shopping
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The Independent Culture

There's a moment in the Wim Wenders documentary Buena Vista Social Club when Omara Portuondo simply cannot contain herself. She and her septuagenarian compadré Ibrahim Ferrer have just finished the poignant bolero "Silencio" - if the flowers in her garden see her sadness, she sings, they will wither and die - on stage at Carnegie Hall. "I had a rush of emotion," she now says of the tears Ferrer tenderly wiped away. "It was about the pain of love, so it had to be sung with an enormous amount of feeling."

With a career spanning more than 50 years, Cuba's very own "Fiancée of Filin'' has just about cried herself a river. As the only woman in the Buena Vista Social Club, that Grammy award-winning line-up of elderly Havana-based virtuosos, Portuondo, 70, was somewhat overshadowed by the media attention lavished on Ferrer, 82-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez and 93-year-old vocalist and guitarist Compay Segundo. "It was about teamwork," she insists. "It meant I could express myself through other people as well."

Her sonorous, expressive voice gets to shine on her solo album of boleros and other traditional Cuban rhythms, none the less. "There is a feeling of continuity and belonging to that music," she says. "A lost music dating back to the Forties."

Sitting wearing tracksuit and trainers in the lobby of a Parisian hotel, her jet-black chignon accentuating cut-glass cheekbones, Portuondo (with her only child, Ariel) is on her way back home to Havana after she and her team-mates scooped both best international and best jazz acts at the Echo Music Awards in Hamburg (Germany's equivalent of the Brits). "Tom Jones gave me a kiss and told me he loved our album," she says, delighted. "Like us, he's another old guy who's having a big comeback."

Not that she has ever been away. While Ferrer, disillusioned with performing, briefly took up shining shoes for a living, Portuondo has continued to dazzle Cuban audiences just as she did in Havana's pre-revolutionary big-band era. She still appears at the Tropicana Club (the cabaret's director, Demetrio Munuz, arranged her album's lush soundscape), whose stage she first graced as a 17-year-old dancer alongside her elder sister Haydee. "Someone had dropped out and I was asked to stand in, but I was very shy and ashamed to show my legs. Then my mother said, 'Do it for me. You'll see, one day you'll represent your country worldwide with your art.' "

Portuondo's mother hailed from a wealthy Spanish family who disowned her when she married a black baseball player from Santiago de Cuba. "Back then, mixed marriages were frowned upon. I never even saw my parents walk down the street together," she says. "As a reaction, they created this haven at home. They were always singing to themselves, to us, to each other." Many of those songs remain in her repertoire today: the album includes the bittersweet "Viente Anos" ("If all the things we wanted were to come within our grasp/You would love me as much as 20 years ago"), whose back-up vocals the young Omara would sing in the kitchen to her father's lead.

Through the Tropicana Club, Portuondo began singing with Loquibambla Swing, a handful of American jazz musicians who pioneered the "feeling", or "filin'' genre - a jazz-influenced version of the bossa nova - for which she became renowned. A series of quartets followed. She and Haydee then decided to form their own, all-woman foursome, Las D'Aida, which proved crucial in Cuba's musical history.

"We used to sing and dance with a spontaneity that won the public over," says Portuondo, who was with them for 15 years. "Our vocal arrangements were very innovative. We were acclaimed everywhere, on radio and television, and when Nat King Cole played the Tropicana we sang on stage with him." He was, she adds, banging a teaspoon on a cup by way of example, one of the few musicians she's met who had perfect pitch. "He would sing on his own, and then the orchestra would come in. Then he would start to play the piano, exactly in tune."

Las D'Aida were singing in a large Miami hotel when the Cuban missile crisis struck, beginning the country's long period of isolation. While Haydee decided to remain in America, Omara immediately returned home. But despite the continued popularity of a revamped Las D'Aida, Portuondo eventually decided to go solo. "With so many singers in exile, there was a gap to be filled," she shrugs.

Portuondo went on to represent Cuba at the Sopot Festival in Poland, a socialist version of the Eurovision Song Contest, at the Fête d'Humanité in Paris and, with the charanga (violin and flute-led) outfit Orquesta Aragon, in Finland and Japan. With one or two exceptions, her previous solo albums suffer from poor production values; undeterred, she happened to be recording another on the first floor of Havana's Egrem Studios at the same time that the American guitar maestro Ry Cooder and London-based record company World Circuit were reassembling the Buena Vista Social Club on the floor below.

Such serendipity led to Portuondo's participation in Buena Vista, an international success story that President Castro is yet to acknowledge, officially or otherwise. Is that because the outfit is redolent of those decadent years before the revolution? "I wouldn't know," she says carefully. "I haven't met him. Perhaps later on." Predictably, she refuses to comment on the current American/Cuban tug-of-war over the six-year-old Elian Gonzalez ("Please keep to questions about the album," cautions her French PR from a nearby couch), but concedes her inevitable role as an ambassador for Cuban women.

"Cuban women have very strong characters," she smiles. "They bring up their families and go out to work as well. I admire them enormously." And if Cuban women admire her in return, it is for her humility as well as her art: "I am a simple person, and a familiar figure to them. I do my own shopping. I take the bus. I walk up stairs." That's 12 flights, when the lift in her apartment on the Malecon boulevard breaks down. Which is often. "Or we get out through a hole in the lift. It sounds mad, but we all do it. The problem is getting parts to repair it."

For the record, she says she wouldn't live anywhere else. "In Cuba, feelings are everything. I couldn't sing like I do if I wasn't Cuban. It's something in the blood. We cry sometimes, but with our problems, with our special situation, we always keep a little bit of happiness in our hearts."