Omara Portuondo didn't answer right away. Finally, after about 40 minutes of dialing, a voice picked up:
"Oigo? Omara Portuondo is my name."
Omara's concert at UNC's Memorial Hall THIS FRIDAY (11/5) will be the first by a Cuban artist in the Triangle since Barbarito Torres played the Cat's Cradle in December, 2003.
Here is my extended, edited version of the interview I conducted on October 22, some of which appears in an article in this week's Independent Weekly.
Sylvia Pfeiffenberger: Omara, tell me about your beginnings in music. What were your first music schools, either formal or informal?
Omara Portuondo: I attended normal schools from elementary through high school. Starting in primary school, I belonged to the chorus and took classes in music.
Sylvia: How and when did you arrive in the Filin scene?
Omara: That was in the decade of the 40s, I encountered a group of young people that called themselves “Filin” [>Eng. “feeling”]. Filin means “sentimiento,” and so everything they did in music, they said it had to have “filin.” We began doing boleros and lots of things. The most well-known song they did was called “Contigo en la Distancia,” by composer Cesar Portillo de la Luz. The pianist of the group was Frank Emilio Flynn. Many of these people have already died, because they were older than I was. I was still an adolescent, I was still in high school at that time. But I went to places where you could hear trova, and came to know their music in the houses of friends, etc.
Sylvia: Who gave you the nickname, “La Novia del Filin,” [the Sweetheart of Feeling] and when was that?
Omara: It was the first show I ever did, a program called “El Microfono,” on the radio station Mil Diez. The announcer Manolo Ortega gave me the name “La Novia del Filin,” because I was the only woman in the group at that time.
Sylvia: Among Cuban composers, do you have favorites?
Omara: Almost all of them are my favorites. One of them who has works that are almost classical in nature, but with Cuban roots, is Sindo Garay. I like the writers of traditional trova, and the composers of filin, like Cesar Portillo de la Luz. On the Gracias album, there’s a filin song called “Adios Felicidad” [by Ela O’Farrill]. There are many more I could name.
Sylvia: Is it true what one reads, that North American jazz singers influenced the Filin movement, such as Maxine Sullivan, Lena Horne or others?
Omara: We heard all that music in Cuba, because the southern US is close to Cuba and the Caribbean. We made our own jazz, too, like Frank Emilio, who was an excellent jazzista, but also had a filin ensemble. We also made Brazilian music because we knew it. We made Italian music because we knew it. From Spain we had zarzuelas, all the Spanish music. We had the possibility to know almost all cultures, to have access to them, to know them and to enjoy them.
Sylvia: Was it an international movement then, in terms of its influences?
Omara: The Filin? Filin was a national movement. We sing the same songs now as when I was starting out, boleros, sentimental songs, that’s why it’s called feeling. We were music aficionados. We weren’t very professional in the beginning, but as time went on, we got more professional. We made music everywhere, on the radio stations, everywhere. The radio was a very important means for transmitting the music.
Sylvia: I want to talk a little about your time in the group Cuarteto D’Aida.
Omara: El Cuarteto D’Aida was founded in 1952. There were five musicians, the director, Aida Diestro, and the [vocal] quartet of girls, Elena Burke, Moraima Secada, my sister Haydee Portuondo and me. Aida Diestro was a magnificent musician, complete in every way, she knew how to make great arrangements and select the songs and everything.
Sylvia: Was this also a sort of school for you?
Omara: Yes, that was my university. I was active in the quartet for 15 years, from 1952 until 1967. Then I left to become a soloist.
Sylvia: Let’s talk about your album Magia Negra, at the end of the 50s, that was your first album as a soloist, correct?
Omara: Oh! You know it. While I was still with the quartet I made that record because the musicians suggested it. They wanted to make a record with me, and that’s what we did.
Sylvia: That record has a very interesting sound, a mix of jazz, musica tipica cubana…
Omara: Yes, we did a completely Spanish version of “Magia Negra” [“That Old Black Magic”]. Lena Horne sang a song at the time in a film, Stormy Weather. I sang it with Frank Emilio on the radio, in Spanish and English. “Summertime,” all these type of things, I sang these in English and Spanish. At the time several [U.S.] movies came out with all-black casts, another was Carmen [Jones], with Harry Belafonte.
Sylvia: Have you acted in movies?
Omara: Yes, I’ve acted in two films. One is a Cuban opera, it’s a zarzuela, called Cecilia Valdes. They turned it into a movie. There’s a character called Mercedes Ayala running a club where white men could dance with mulatas.
The other film is called Baragua, it’s a city in Cuba where they made peace in the war for Cuban independence. In that one I played the mother of one of the fighters for Cuban independence, Antonio Maceo.
Sylvia: This past November you visited the US to present at the Latin Grammys, and you also won that award [Best Tropical Album for Gracias (2008)].
Omara: That was a very lovely thing that happened to me, and to everyone who worked on the record. We work as a team. We have Brazilian musicians, some from Buena Vista, my son…it was a beautiful project for that reason, because we all worked together, composers, producers, and musicians.
For many years we couldn’t come here [to the U.S.] because Cuba was on a terrorist list. For that time [c. 2004-2009] they didn’t give us visas. But last year, they gave me one. I was able to meet a Mexican composer [at the Latin Grammys] whom I admire greatly.
Sylvia: When was your first visit here? How many times have you toured the U.S.?
Omara: The first visit, it was in 1951, with a show from the Tropicana. There were dancers, musicians, and an orchestra. I haven't counted them [U.S. tours], but that was the first one.
Sylvia: I want to talk some about the Buena Vista phenomenon.
Omara: That was a big hit, also.
Sylvia: Were you expecting it? What importance did it have, as one chapter in your long musical career?
Omara: Well, really, I’m very glad I was incorporated as a part of that very successful record. We toured all over, Europe, Germany, we visited all these places. I was making a filin record at the time, and they came to me and said they wanted me to sing on this record that still didn’t have a name. I sang a duet with Compay [Segundo], “Veinte Años,” which is a song I have been singing for many, many years. It’s a song my parents taught me, a very special one.
Sylvia: To be quite honest with you, that was my introduction to Omara Portuondo, but since that time I’ve been lucky enough to get to know most of your music.
Omara: You don’t say. I give thanks for that, I had no idea someone like you would be interested in getting to know all my music after so many years. In what part of the U.S. do you live?
Sylvia: In North Carolina.
Omara: Well you know we are going to visit you soon.
Sylvia: Yes, we are looking forward to it. I’ve been waiting a long time for the return of Cuban artists.
Omara: Yes, we’re here now. I'm very happy about it because culture has to have its space.
Sylvia: Do I have your correct birthdate, which is October 29, 1930? How do you plan to celebrate your 80th birthday?
Omara: Yes. That day I’ll be [performing] in Chico, California. That’s the best way I could spend it, singing, because I don’t like parties. I don’t drink alchohol. My parties for me are my work, because I get tremendous enjoyment out of it. It gives me energy, it gives me life. I feel very good on stage.
Sylvia: It’s interesting to me that you are a singer with a very refined style, you sing jazz, you have performed on TV and in nightclub shows, but also, you are really a people’s singer, because you sing songs that everyone knows and that everyone sings.
Omara: Yes, of course, that is very important for me too. Because what interests me, what I need as a human being, is to sing things that everyone feels. Love songs, all these sentimental things I’m interpreting, I’m also feeling them at the same time, when I am singing.
Sylvia: Omara, thanks for your time today.
Omara: Muy agradecida.
© by Sylvia Pfeiffenberger 2010. Written permission required to reprint or reproduce.
Nov. 5 Concert Info/ Box Office for Carolina Performing Arts
INDY story: "With Omara Portuondo, Cuba Comes Back to the Triangle"
Omara Portuondo artist website