World Pioneer Award
Omara Portuondo (World Circuit Records)
While so many of the other Buena Vista Social Club veterans have sadly left us – Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Orlando ‘Cachaito’ López among them – Omara, now 91, is still going strong. Her contribution to Buena Vista Social Club was a magical, timeless version on the classic bolero ‘Veinte Años’, which was recorded in a single take between finishing up sessions for her own album and her imminent departure for a tour of South-East Asia. Had she not had a taxi to the airport waiting outside the studio she would surely have sung more on the album, but she went on to become a central figure in the live BVSC concerts, bringing a tear to the eyes with her moving duet with Ferrer on ‘Silencio’ at New York’s Carnegie Hall, seen in Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club film.
Born in Havana in 1930, as a child Omara dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. But when she found that door closed due to the colour of her skin, she and her older sister Haydée became dancers at Havana’s celebrated Tropicana Cabaret. By the early 1950s the sisters had joined Elena Burke and Moraima Secada to form the vocal quartet Cuarteto d’Aida, touring the US and backing Nat King Cole in Havana.
Omara had just recorded her debut solo album, Magia Negra, when the Cuban Revolution happened. Her sister and her close friend Celia Cruz left the island and settled in the US, but Omara chose to stay put. Since then, she has sung with everyone who is anyone in Cuban music, from Chucho Valdés to Los Van Van. Ry Cooder once told Juan de Marcos González, musical director on the Buena Vista recordings, that Omara was the Cuban Sarah Vaughan. “No,” he corrected him. “Sarah Vaughan was the American Omara Portuondo.”
She became famous as the finest exponent of Cuba’s movimiento filin – the ‘feeling movement’ of singers who interpret lyrics with soulful emotion. “I give my heart, put all the emotions into my singing,” she says when asked to describe the style. By the time Buena Vista happened Omara was in her mid-60s and already the grand dame of Cuban singing. “None of us could ever have imagined that this project was going to be so special,” she says of Buena Vista. “It was a gift to share something so beautiful with friends and musicians that I admire. We were called the Cuban music ambassadors and this is something that you carry with honour.”