Success comes if you take advantage of the opportunities life presents to you. When you use the benefits of that success to contribute to your community, everyone wins. Omara Portuondo is a singer and dancer of Cuban descent who is a great representation of both of these basic truths.
Like many Cubans, Portuondo had a rich musical foundation rooted in the songs her parents sang to her and her sisters. Growing up, Portuondo would watch her sister Haydee for hours on end rehearse dance routines for the famous Cabaret Tropicana. By a stroke of luck, one of the dancers gave notice days before the grand opening of a new show. Portuondo knew the routine from watching her sister, which earned her the dance spot. This momentous opportunity was the kickstart to her dancing career.
Portuondo danced with several troupes, but began to pursue singing with her sister in the band Los Loquibambla. The music was a Cuban version of the bossa nova with touches of American jazz. Portuondo and her sister later formed the vocal quartet Quarteto Las d’Aida, which combined Cuban music with American jazz.
In 1959, Portuondo began to pursue a solo career. It was cut short, however, because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. She chose to return to Cuba and remained a core member of Las d’Aida until 1967, when she decide to go solo again. The gap in the Cuban music scene created by the singers who’d fled the island presented a unique opportunity for Portuondo. She became a representative for Cuba at different international festivals and became better known on the island as a performer.
Likely the greatest opportunity of Portuondo’s career came through her contributions to the Buena Vista Social Club. Malian musicians who were supposed to collaborate with Cuban musicians on the project hadn’t received their visas and couldn’t travel to Havana. Plans changed to include all Cuban artists, of which Portuondo was the only female in the ensemble. She soloed her dulcet baritone voice on “Veinte Años” and gave a heartfelt rendition of the song “Silencio” with fellow artist Ibrahim Ferrer. The Buena Vista Social Club helped Cuban music gain attention and catapulted Portuondo to fame.
Along with her solo work, Portuondo has performed with other bands over the years. Some of her recordings have addressed political themes, such as her beautiful rendition of Carlos Puebla’s “Hasta Siempre, Comandante,” which refers to revolutionary Ché Guevara. Her album “Gracias” earned the Latin Grammy Award for the Best Contemporary Tropical Album in 2009. As of her birthday today, Portuondo still performs around the world and is currently on tour for her album “Omara and Chucho” with pianist Chucho Valdés and as a diva performing with the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
Portuondo could never have determined the fortune she would reap in life, but she used the opportunities presented to her to pursue her dreams and serve the Cuban community as an international representative of the island’s rich musical heritage. Due to Portuondo’s commitment to service and excellence within her field, we honor her on her 82nd birthday as one of Alpha Rho Lambda Sorority’s Mujeres Imprescindibles.
Find out more about Omara Portuondo’s background, current projects and tours on her website.