“You can tell a Cuban by the way they laugh,” says Omara Portuondo.
Just hours shy of her Friday night concert in Manhattan’s Sony Hall — halfway through her last-ever worldwide tour, dubbed the ‘Last Kiss’ — one of Cuba’s most exalted singers turned heads as she let burst a throaty cackle. The 88-year-old not only has a natural gift for music, but for conjuring smiles wherever she goes. “Cubans make big laughs,” she tells Rolling Stone. “What defines our people is our happiness.”
Portuondo had been celebrated in her home country for decades, but gained much greater renown as the sole female member of the Grammy-winning Cuban all-star ensemble, Buena Vista Social Club. Long before she joined the supergroup in 1996, Portuondo and her sister Haydée sang in the all-woman quartet Cuarteto d’Aida; the group would not only tour the United States, but share stages with legends such as Nat King Cole, Edith Piaf and Benny Moré. Upon releasing her 1958 solo debut, Magia Negra, Omara Portuondo was nicknamed La Novia del Filín — pronounced like “feeling” with a Spanish inflection, the genre known as filín epitomized the nexus between Cuban bolero and American jazz.
“I could never sing just one type of music,” says Portuondo. “There’s music in everything: it’s in the sun, it’s in the earth, it’s in the sea.”
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Just one year after Portuondo launched her solo career, the Cuban Revolution would forever upend the country and its foreign relations. Like many other Cuban musicians, Haydée Portuondo would leave the island and settle in the U.S.; but Omara chose to stay, and has continued to live and perform in Havana ever since. It’s where she recorded her most recent album, 2018’s Omara Siempre, which features collaborations with contemporary Cuban artists such as Diana Fuentes, as well as Aymée Nuviola, who played Celia Cruz in the biopic telenovela series Celia.
“Omara is one of Cuba’s greatest treasures,” says Portuondo’s music director and Grammy-nominated pianist Roberto Fonseca. Seated next to Portuondo, he’s taken on the role of her translator and moral support on tour. Portuondo, on the other hand, playfully acts as Fonseca’s matchmaker in the States; but luckily for the bashful pianist, her singing skills far surpass her marriage-broking ones.
“You can hear it in her voice,” adds Fonseca in English, amid teases from Portuondo. “She is the spirit of the island come to life.”
Later that night at Sony Hall, multiple generations of fans pack the cabaret tables and quickly order drinks. Some of those booming Cuban laughs Portuondo spoke of resonate well across the room and grow to cheers as she emerges elegantly onstage, wearing a red hair bow and matching floral lace gown. “I am honored to be here,” she told the New York audience in Spanish. “But it would be a greater honor if you danced.” Multiple cameras flanked the stage, as director Hugo Perez is currently shooting a documentary entitled Omara: The Last Diva set for release in 2020.
Steered by Fonseca on piano, Portuondo’s supporting band on the Last Kiss tour features Andres Coayo on percussions, drummer Ruly Herrera and bassist Yandy Martinez. Together, the diva and her trusty quartet run through some of the most beloved boleros from her repertoire, from “Dos Gardenias” to “Lágrimas Negras.” While Portuondo took a short break backstage, Fonseca hammered out funk-laden improvisations on piano and synths; with nods to Cuban standards like “Quizás Quizás Quizás,” the group led a rambling jam until Portuondo would surface once more.
“Un aplauso para la señora,” announced Fonseca upon Portuondo’s arrival. She let out an audible hiss, bristled at the inference upon her age.
“…Un aplauso para la señorita,” said Fonseca, to her satisfaction.
Her voice as measured as ever before, Portuondo has continued to wield the power to harness a sprawling range of emotions — ambling between states of joy, of yearning and lament — in a single, lingering note. Most haunting of all was her rendition of “Veinte Años,” made famous by her duet with late Buena Vista comrade, Compay Segundo; traces of Segundo’s earthy croon seemed to float spectral beneath the melody. “With what sadness we look [at a] love that is going away,” she sang in Spanish, “It is a piece of the soul that is torn without mercy.”
Yet Portuondo’s farewell was not all a somber affair, as she brought the crowd to their feet with patriotic songs like “Soy Cubana” and “Guantanamera,” letting loose the occasional shimmy between verses. And when a man with an American accent beckoned for “Besame Mucho” — the way one might have beckoned for “Free Bird,” once upon a Skynyrd show — the band obliged to the delight of the audience. By the show’s end, Portuondo bent down and touched her toes to assert that, although she may retire from life on the road, she’s Still Got It, and always will.
“It’s not over yet,” she tells Rolling Stone before the show, adding playfully in English: “No bye bye!”
“Music is my life,” Portuondo continues. “I’m gonna do this until I die.”
Omara Portuondo Set List
2. “Drume Negrita”
3. “Adios Felicidad”
4. “Dos Gardenias”
5. “Soy Cubana”
6. “Balada” (trio)
7. “Abakuá” (trio)
8. “Lágrimas Negras”
9. “Veinte Años”
10. “La Sitiera”
11. “Tal Vez”
12. “Besame Mucho”
‘Last Kiss’ Remaining Tour Dates
May 4th – St. Paul, MN @ Ordway Music Theatre
June 26th – Toronto, ON @ Koerner Hall
June 27th – Montreal, QC @ Maisonneuve Theatre de la Place des Arts
June 28th – Ottawa, ON @ TD Ottawa Jazz Festival