My moon app announces that in 14 hours the Supermoon of May will be here. During a full moon I often get inspired to write about women whose talents I admire. This is prime time to get the show on the road!
The Curtains Open to Vocalist Omara Portuondo, The Grand Lady of Cuban Music for Decades
She is gifted with a beautiful voice, and a unique way of interpreting songs with great emotion and phrasing, as personal as any of the great jazz singers. It is not easy to write a short piece about an artist who has had such a long and successful career. But I’ll share a few stories that I read, and some that I heard first hand from writers and musicians who worked with her.
Born in 1930 in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana to a professional baseball player and a very musical mother, Omara was encouraged by her parents to pursue a musical career when she was very young. She started singing and dancing in public in her late teens. At an early age she joined her sister Haydée as a dancer at the famous Tropicana club. As a singer, her first professional performances were with the jazz group ‘Loquibambia Swing’, put together by guitarist/composer José Antonio Méndez and featuring Frank Emilio Flynn at the piano. She was introduced to a bigger audience during a program at Radio Mil Diez as ‘Omara Brown, la novia del feeling’ (‘the sweetheart of feeling’, referring to a popular style of bolero closely related to American jazz). Later she toured the USA for six months with the quartet of Orlando de la Rosa. After returning home she joined the famous all female band Anacaona for a short tour.
One of the highlights of her career is when she became part of the vocal group of Aida Diestro, Cuarteto D’Aida, with Elena Burke, Moraima Secada and her sister Haydée Portuondo. In 1952 they debuted on Cuban television and in 1957 they recorded their only album, ‘Las D’Aida’ with a band led by the legendary Chico O’Farrill. She stayed with this unique vocal quartet for 15 years. Omara says that being part of the group was a very important learning experience for her. In her words, Aida Diestro was an exceptional musical talent who taught her to discover her possibilities as an interpreter and a musician. The Cuarteto D’Aida formed a valuable school for the participating singers, and the daily work with them served as an advanced musical education.
In the meantime, Omara started her solo career. Her first featured album being ‘Magia Negra’, was produced and orchestrated in 1959 by the renowned pianist and band leader, Julio Gutiérrez. Many more albums would follow. Among the treasures I found was a 45 rpm EP from the early 60’s with the amazing guitarist, composer and arranger Juanito Márquez. In this recording you can hear a variety of approaches, described on the sleeve as ‘bossa nova, rock lento, descarga’, all with significant jazz influence. I’ve noticed that in this period, when a tune went into the realm of jazz and soloing, the producers would call it ‘descarga’ or ‘jam session’. The record is named after Juanito’s song, ‘Como Un Milagro’, a rare gem of the Cuban musical heritage.
I had been looking for this recording since I first heard about the connection between Omara and Juanito. Cuban bass legend Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ Lopez told me an interesting story. In the early 60’s, Juanito Márquez, drummer Guillermo Barreto, Omara and Cachaíto had a jazz quartet that played a regular gig in a club of the Havana neighborhood, El Vedado. That was news to me, and shows a side of Omara’s work that is less known to her audience. Actually, the general public outside of Cuba only knows her through the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC), but Omara Portuondo has a resume that stretches way beyond that repertoire.
From the 60’s through the 90’s, Omara’s career kept flourishing while she was performing and recording with many artists. You can see the scope of her musical diversity by the company she keeps. The list includes Cuban musicians like Chucho Valdés, Adalberto Álvarez, Martín Rojas, Pablo Milanés, groups like Irakere and Orquesta Aragón, and international artists such as Lucho Gatica.
And Then Came Buena Vista Social Club!
Here is a story Omara told Cuban author and journalist Juan Carlos Roque García, as described in his book about Buena Vista Social Club. He interviewed Omara several times while working for the ‘Radio Nederland Wereldomroep’, which was during 65 years the Dutch radio world service.
In 1997 she was recording her CD ‘La Novia del Feeling’ in the Areito Studios of Cuban record label EGREM in Havana, while BVSC was putting together their famous first album in an adjacent room. Cuban producer Juan de Marcos walked into the studio where she was recording and introduced her to Ry Cooder. They asked if she wanted to go to the studio upstairs and record a song with them. She accepted and right away recorded ‘Veinte Años’. Little did she suspect that this album would become an international hit that would give new wings to her career and take her on the road for many years to come.
In 2000, she made the solo album ‘Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo’ for the World Circuit label. That same year, I was invited by Cachaíto to a concert of BVSC in Austin Texas. This turned out to be a magical night. Everyone from all over Texas came to hear them play. I found myself dancing next to Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, who was going wild over the music. Omara touched the hearts of all who were there that night with her rendition of the same song that lead her to fame, ‘Veinte Años’. She sang it in a way that I never heard anyone do before or since. Her beautiful voice phrased it so freely and with so much emotion, that tears were rolling down my cheeks. After the concert my brother and I met her backstage. When he told her that we were moved to tears, she said: ‘Ay mi hijo, deja ese llanto’ – ‘Oh my dear, let go of the crying’. We had to laugh, because she really caught us off guard.
In 2003, Brazilian guitarist Swami Jr. started working with Omara as her musical director and guitarist for the album ’Flor de Amor’ (2006), with participation of musicians like Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López and Barbarito Torres. Swami Jr. also played, arranged and co-produced two other albums: ’Omara Portuondo e Maria Bethania’ and ‘Gracias’. The latter won a Latin GRAMMY® in 2009. ‘Gracias’, with an all star cast of musicians including Chico Buarque, Pablo Milanés, Jorge Drexler, Avishai Cohen, Trilok Gurtu and Richard Bona, creates a wonderful mix of world music styles. To me this is one of her best recordings. It shows her versatility in interpreting many diverse musical genres, not just Cuban, but also Brazilian and South American.
In a recent conversation with Swami Jr, I asked him what the most memorable part of his work with Omara was. His voice jumped with excitement as he said: “Being on stage with Omara is the greatest experience that I’ve had as an artist. She is the kind of singer that no longer exists. Music is in her body, not in her head. She is not afraid of anything, she is in the moment… she is music! When Omara walks on stage she brings along not just her music, but all the flavor and livelihood of the streets of Havana. I enjoyed hanging out with her and listening to all the stories of her life, and also walking on the streets of Havana with her – that was a trip! People would stop her everywhere, and she loved to engage in conversation with everyone she met. Havana loves Omara and she loves her native city and her people.”
During her long career she has received many nominations and awards. In 2019, Omara received ‘The Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the Latin Recording Academy®. But she does not let all her success go to her head. In his book, Juan Carlos Roque García describes her not as a diva but as a simple woman who loves her country. And that is how she sees herself. In an interview when he asked Omara how she wanted to be remembered, as the ‘Edith Piaf of Cuba’, the ‘Great Sonera’, or the ‘Diva of the Buena Vista Social Club’, she responded: ‘Omara, the Mulata from Havana’.
¡Gracias, Gracias, Gracias! Many thanks to Juan Carlos Roque García, Swami Jr., Rosa Marquetti, and Dr. and Mrs. Salsa (Ira and Hansje Goldwasser) for their valuable help.
- Estrella Acosta (vocalist/ lyricist) www.estrellaacosta.com
- Rosa Marquetti (author, music researcher) www.desmemoriados.com
- Swami Jr. (guitarist, producer, arranger) https://instagram.com/swamijr.oficial?
- Juan Carlos Roque García – Cómo Cuba puso a bailar al mundo – Veinte años del Buena Vista
Tribute to the Masters: Mario Rivera
Mario Rivera was a gifted musician, composer and arranger that played more than 15 instruments, which included piano, vibraphone, drums, trumpet, timbales, congas, flute, and piccolo. But Rivera was known for how he kissed and caressed the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones. He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who also mastered of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship. Rivera dominated the “straight- ahead” jazz and Latin Jazz, Salsa and many other genres.
Mario was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodríguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Típica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra and especially Tito Puente’s Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades.
Even though Rivera was one of the hardest working sidemen in the jazz and Latin music business he also led two groups of his own Salsa Refugees and The Mario Rivera Sextet. Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, Mario recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, “El Comandante.” It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vásquez.
Rivera’s passing has been felt very hard in the Latin music and jazz community and he is sorely missed. But we have his stories, music recordings, photos, and videos to remember this grand musician because what he left us makes him truly immortal.
We leave the readers with these final thoughts from Mario himself: “In my case, the day becomes the night and the night becomes the day. There are no vehicles on the street; there are no sirens at night. There is nothing that could block the inspiration. My home is like a musical laboratory because I have to accomplish so many things, I have to learn to play so many instruments. I spend all of my free time at home, practicing like a maniac, refining my chops. This is why I play 24 instruments. When it comes to music, one must be actively militant. Music demands your entire attention and dedication. If a musician is not willing to make that commitment, he will end up floating on a sea of turds, along with the other idle and mediocre characters.”
Mario Rivera passed in August, 2007, may he play on.
Content source: James Nadal
Photos from the Facebook Tribute Page: Mario Rivera “el Comandante”
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