Buena Vista star Omara Portuondo: ‘Music is my life and I won’t stop singing’
The singer, in Hong Kong this week, has been making music for 70 years and even if the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is ready to call it a day after this current tour, she still has passion to burn
Omara Portuondo’s tiny frame belies the sheer power of her sonorous voice, a voice that made her a star in Cuba well before she found global fame with the Buena Vista Social Club at an age most people start claiming their pensions.
Even as the group wind down with their “Adios Tour”, which calls though Hong Kong as part of the Arts Festival this week, the 85-year-old, who has been performing since she was 15, insists she is not ready to hang up the mic.
“None of us could ever have imagined the great success of Buena Vista Social Club – we’ve achieved more than we could ever have dreamed, but it was time for the band to say goodbye,” she says before the Hong Kong leg of the tour.
But she is adamant: “Music is my life and I won’t stop singing.”
It has been 20 years since a twist of fate led American guitarist Ry Cooder and World Circuit’s Nick Gold to Cuban star Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who encouraged a coterie of the island’s musical talent – some out of retirement – to join together and create a record.
Crafted in just six days, the album Buena Vista Social Club – named after the long-closed members-only venue in Havana – sold millions, secured a Grammy, and along with Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated film documenting its production, thrust Cuban music onto the international stage.
It also exported a vibrant idea of Cuba to a world from which it had been largely closed off since the 1959 revolution and the Cold War. For a generation coming of age in the 1990s in the West, the music of Buena Vista Social Club added a burst of colour to the grey of Castro’s communism – encouraging people to see the place for themselves.
“We are called ambassadors for Cuba and I am honoured. I think when you do what you love, only good things can come from that. It shines from you and to other people,” she says.
De Marcos Gonzalez has previously credited the band for helping begin the thaw in relations between the US and Cuban administrations, by rekindling America’s curiosity about the island. Last October the group performed for president Barack Obama at the White House, where he revealed he too had bought the iconic album.
It was a situation, Portuondo says, “none of us could ever have imagined” when they started out, describing Obama as “very warm and welcoming”.
Later this month, Obama will become the first US president to visit Cuba since 1928, with the White House describing the trip as a “Berlin Wall” moment. Diplomatic ties between the two nations, which broke off in 1960, were restored in July last year.
Portuondo dismisses criticism the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon has created a caricature of Cuban music or that there is a disconnect between what islanders listen to and what is performed for tourists.
“Well, nowadays everybody listens to a lot of different music, genres and styles,” she says. “The good thing is that traditional Cuban music is very respected … it has a lot of influences, we sing in Spanish, but we have Afro sounds, influences from chanson. I think this has made it popular around the world.”
The 1997 Buena Vista Social Club album gave some veteran Cuban musicians a new lease of life: Ibrahim Ferrer, a great star in the 1940s, had fallen on hard times and was shining shoes in Havana to earn extra cash, while pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who helped pioneer the cha-cha and the mambo dances, had retired after struggling with arthritis, his piano riddled with termites, when they were called up to join the group.
But with so many of the stars in their twilight years when the band began – death and illness has taken its toll on membership over the past 20 years. Portuondo is one of a few from the original line-up to remain, and just this month Jesus ’Aguaje’ Ramos pulled out of the Hong Kong performance for health reasons. The injection of young talent means the ensemble now performs under the name Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
The “Adios! Tour” pays homage to the band’s history, combining new talent with the veterans, as well as images and footage of elder statesmen of Cuban music now dead. “They have always been part of us and of the music,” says Portuondo.
For the diva, who began performing 70 years ago at Havana’s famed Tropicana club, the Buena Vista chapter is just one high note in a remarkable career that has seen her work with stars such as Nat King Cole, Herbie Hancock, Edith Piaf and Chico Buarque. And the octogenarian expects plenty more.
She says: “Is this goodbye from me? Never! Next I’ll be touring in Europe and the USA with my ‘85 tour’ to celebrate my life and career.”
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Mar 10-12, 8pm, Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui, HK$380-HK$780, Urbtix. For more information, visit www.hk.artsfestival.org