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Cuban Music Lesson: Omara Portuondo

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

There have been a lot of great singers in Cuban musical history: Celia Cruz, Benny More, Ibrahim Ferrer, and other old dead Cubanos. The truly great singers don’t sing from the heart, but from the guts. Pain and having life kick the living dog crap out of you is where good singing comes from. The entire history of Cuba has been one continuous heartache. In the best Cuban singers you can hear this pain, and you hear it loud and clear in Omara Portuondo.

Omara comes from a musical family. She and her sister Haydee, (naming your kids stupid names is nothing new), started singing in cabarets around Havana in their teens. They came up during the apex of the Cuban big band era in the 1950’s. Omara sang with all the biggies: El Trio Matamoro, Benny More, and even Nat King Cole. In the sixties, the two sisters joined singers Elena Burke, Moriama Secada, and pianist Aida Diestro to form the Cuban answer to The Supremes, Los D’Aida. The gals sang a bolero flavored take on American soul. All of them were great singers, but Omara stood out. Whether she sang about heartbreak, unrequited love, or cutting sugar cane like a good revolutionary, it was for real. You believed it came from somewhere dark and tender, just like a three piece extra crispy meal from El Colonel Sanders.

In 1998, like every old musician that was still alive, Omara was swept up by Ry Cooder for the Buena Vista Social Club. If her duets with Ibrahim Ferrer on the Buena Vista albums don’t send chills up your spine, then you are dead inside. Omara still tours around the world with the surviving fogies of the Buena Vista group. This author was lucky enough to hear Omara twice. Yes, I cried and no, I’m not embarrassed by it. Some people have said that Omara has a better voice than Celia Cruz. This is controversial, and might lead to fist fights in some circles. I happen to be in the Omara camp. Bring it on.

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