Born on 29 October 1930, Omara Portuondo Peláez is the last original member of the Buena Vista Social Club. At 91, she is also one of the most prolific and most celebrated Latin American artists with a singing career that spans 62 years, 38 albums, 4 films, and countless tours and appearances around the world. Portuondo’s claim to fame is her smooth, silky, and soaring voice that can be heard on her bolero, son cubano, and jazz songs—a voice that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.
Portuondo’s early years as a performer included dancing in the Cabaret Tropicana, the Mulatas De Fuego, as well as other dance groups and Havana clubs in the 1950s. Around this time, she also began singing; first, with her sister, Haydee, in the Orquesta Anacaona and then, later, in the Cuarteto d’Aida. The Cuarteta were successful, touring in the United States and performing with the likes of Nat King Cole. This early exposure to the highest levels of musical performance heralded Portuondo’s long and storied career in music.
In 1958, Portuondo’s debut solo album Magia Negra was released. This coincided with her sister, Haydee, departing from Cuarteto d’Aida to live in the United States. Portuondo’s solo career, though, was just beginning and she would continue singing with the Cuarteta. In 1967, Portuondo’s shifted her focus to her solo career, recording two albums in quick succession: Omara Portuondo and Esta Es Omara Portuondo announced her appearance as a unique and standout voice that commanded its own special place in Latin American and world music.
In the 1970s, to supplement her solo work, Portuondo sang alongside Orquesta Aragón, a charanga ensemble. Among her famous recordings from that time were “Hasta Siempre, Comandante”, a popular Carlos Puebla song that referred to Ché Guevara in its lyrics, and “Y Que Se Sepa” with Los Van Van, one of the most famous bands of the late 20th century.
The 1970s and 1980s, for Portuondo, were her first golden period, an era of musical output and success any artist can admire. Tours, bestselling albums, film roles, her own television series, acclaim at home and abroad—Omara Portuondo had it all.
More was to come.
In 1996, the Buena Vista Social Club, the iconic Cuban ensemble was formed. Its lineup is the stuff of legend: Francisco Repilado, also known as Compay Segundo (vocals and tres); Eliades Ochoa (vocals and guitar); Ry Cooder (guitar); Joachim Cooder (percussion); Ibrahim Ferrer (vocals, congas, claves, and bongos); Rubén Gonzalez (piano); Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez (double bass); Manual “Guajiro” Mirabal (trumpet); Barbarito Torres (laúd); Manuel “Puntillita” Licea (vocals); Juan De Marcos Gonzalez (guitar); and, of course, the Leading Lady—Omara Portuondo.
Often duetting with Ibrahim Ferrer on the Buena Vista Social Club debut album, her appearance in Wim Wender’s documentary of the same name, brought Portuondo’s mature sound to new audiences, inspiring new creative energy, recordings, and tours. The second life of one of Cuba’s most famous musicians was in full flight and swing.
As part of the Buena Vista Social Club, she went on to record two of her most popular albums: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo (2000) and Flor de Amor (2004). To date, she remains a member of Buena Vista Social Club, being the only original vocalist to do so. Late into her career, Portuondo continued to record—in 2008, Gracias, a tribute to the 60th anniversary of her long and illustrious singing career, was recorded. Omara Siempre, recorded in 2018, is her latest offering.
In 2004, she was appointed an International Ambassador of the International Red Cross, making her the first Cuban musician to hold the title.
Today, Portuondo lives in Havana. At 91 she remains a popular fixture on the local music scene, singing regularly at popular places like the Tropicana Club, Delirio Habanero, and the Café Cantante.
Featuring “Dos Gardenias”, “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”, “Veinte Años”, “Sabanas Blancas”, and “Donde Estabas Tú?” this playlist is a humble offering of music from one of Cuba’s most illustrious singers: Omara Portuondo—the leading lady of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Dos Gardenias (duet with Ibrahim Ferrer)
Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (duet with Ibrahim Ferrer)
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“Dónde Estabas Tú?”
(In No Time To Die, this famous song is heard in the background as James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, and Paloma, played by Ana De Armas, scout the Spectre gathering in Santiago De Cuba, proving once and for all that Omara Portuondo makes everything better.)
Cover Image: © Buena Vista Social Club