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OMARA: Hugo Perez’s brilliant documentary of Cuba’s one and only Omara Portuondo

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OMARA - Documentary by Hugo Perez

There is something about the great Cuban chanteuse, Omara Portuondo that bears comparison with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington or – more particularly, perhaps – Billie Holiday. Quite like them, she could easily be deemed to be one of the wonders of the music world. Like Lady Day, when the words of a lyric escapes from her lips it is as if the song has escaped from her heart en route direct to God’s ear.

Anyone who’s recently been mesmerised – for that is exactly what happens when she is on stage – by the dowager Queen of Cuban music as she held court on stage from her throne-like wicker chair can testify to living in a time-warp, besotted by her dark-skinned beauty and beguiled by her songs about life. For the first – and perhaps the only time – Cuban American Director Hugo Perez, whose film, simply entitles OMARA, takes us behind the curtain in an attempt to penetrate the sheer veil that has shrouded Portuondo’s life from a growing, ever-adoring public.

The child of Esperanza Peláez, came from a wealthy family of Spanish ancestry, and had created a scandal by running off with and marrying a black professional baseball player, Bartolo Portuondo; Omara grew up surrounded by the love of her parents in a society that frowned upon mixed race marriages. It is the first time we hear of how her mother was ostracised for marrying a black man. But far from being crushed by it the family managed to thrive thanks to the strength of her parents’ loving union that helped get Omara and her sister on the path to success in the world of music.

In 1947, before her call to greatness, Omara joined the Loquibambia Swing, a group formed by the legendary blind pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. Three years later, at just 17 years of age, Omara followed her elder sister Haydee, having become world-class dancers, and held court at the Cuba’s iconic Tropicana cabaret club. She also danced with the famous troupe Mulatas de Fuego in the Teatro Radiocentro, and in other dance groups. Between 1952 and 1953, Omara sang for Orquesta Anacaona. After departing from the iconic all-woman ensemble, Omara and Haydee together with Elena Burke and Moraima Secada formed the famous vocal group Cuarteto d’Aida, so named and directed by the group’s pianist Aida Diestro.

Omara Portuondo picks up her story here in Perez’s remarkable documentary which, incidentally succeeds to the degree that it does, because he lets her tell her own story. He lets her guard what is precious and private, keeping it behind that invisible veil that protects this priceless human being. And he gently probes and cajoles her into telling us whatever she remembers about her life and narrate how she remembers it as well as how she wishes to be remembered. As an enthralled viewer, you catch a glimpse almost immediately at the steely resolve with which Portuondo has navigated her life.

The eternally positive approach to living comes from her complete dedication to her country, her art and love for her legion of adoring fans around the world. While Portuondo does allow the camera [crew] into the green room of her life, there’s only so far that she lets camera – and therefore viewer – in. As much as she adores and cherishes her public persona she puts a great premium on privacy. She reveals nothing about her private life; no details about her husband or why they drifted apart. Adoring looks are exchanged with her son Ariel Jiménez [one of the Executive Producers of the film]. This includes some really amusing moments [seemingly behind-the-scenes footage] where Portuondo goes over the script with Ariel and gently, but firmly refuses to abide by some of the lines, opting not to agree with words like “diva”, gently objecting to being cast as “old” among other banter. The only moment of wistful sadness is revealed when she laments the fact that when Cuarteto d’Aida broke up her sister Haydee chose to stay back in the United States.

The filmmakers lavished raw stock on their subject as befits Omara Portuondo, an artist who happens to inhabit the earth only once in a lifetime. The crew follows her to the US, to Europe and perhaps most memorably to Tokyo, Japan. On tour there you get to appreciate just how wonderfully appreciative of Cuban music – any music really – that Japanese audiences show themselves to be. Remarkably you see people in the audience singing with her. Among her entourage are a Spanish-speaking Japanese gentleman who converses with her in Spanish, translates for her and even sings her songs with her, as does another Japanese aficionado of Latin-American [Afro-Cuban] music too, who sings along with her, finishing her phrases.

We meet several celebrities who have been touched in a special way by Omara. Most of the people who graced her life and career have passed on. So special friends from the legendary Buena Vista Social Club Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González [among others] from the original ensemble make an appearance in the form of old black and white images, both seen affectionately hugging the last surviving member of the original group. There is also historic footage of Omara’s early performances including with Cuarteto d’Aida and at the Tropicana Cabaret. The film also includes appearances by Arturo O’Farrill, son of the great Chico O’Farrill, one of the pioneers of Afro-Cuban Jazz and a great musician in his own right, as well as Cuba’s incomparable pianist and cultural ambassador Chucho Valdés, who so appropriately says: “With or without Buena Vista, Omara is Omara.”

Indeed there is no one in this world quite like Omara Portuondo and this fine film does her justice in so many ways. Chief among this is allowing Omara Portuondo to tell her truth in her own words. Accordingly, the directors show her the utmost respect when she is doing so. Throughout the film, the cinematography of Matt Porwoll and Gary Griffin is spectacular. Their cameras do not simply and respectfully frame their subject; the cameras caress every curve of her face, glide along its wizened lines, sweep across her smile and catch every twinkle that sparkles from her expressive eyes.

Together with a script that probably ends up being what Omara alone deemed fit to be revealed, superb direction, seamless editing and – of course – with the music of the inimitable Omara Portuondo. The person – the artist – who emerges defies description and whose artistry transcends the seemingly mundane preoccupations of this earthly realm. Here too Omara is gracious despite the cinematic adulation. In the end, she seems to only admit to being absolutely mortal, displaying her youthful and puckish nature in a raucous final sequence of the film, shot at the same venue in Old Havana where Buena Vista Social Club used to perform, trading gently sung banter with an old sonero. And when asked what her secret to this incredible life really is, she says with an enigmatic twinkle in her eye: “Cuba… come to Cuba…”

OMARA - Documentary by Hugo Perez
OMARA – Documentary by Hugo Perez

CREDITS

Duration: 1:16:23
Director: Hugo Perez
Producers: Dana Kuznetzkoff, Frida Torresblanco, Danielle Eliav, Ann Lewnes
Executive Producer: Richard Blackstone
Executive Producers for Braven Films: Eric Laufer, Giovanna Randall
Associate Producer: Ariel Jiménez Portuondo
Cinematography: Matt Porwoll, Gary Griffin
Editors: Rachel Shuman, Anne Alvergue
Worldwide Sales: Film Sales Company

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Movie Reviews

Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums: A Film by Soren Sorensen

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Omar Sosa with Soren Sorensen

Anyone approaching this film about the iconic Cuban composer and pianist Omar Sosa, by the award-winning filmmaker Soren Sorensen will be almost immediately struck by its [the film’s] Joycean [Ulysses-like] ‘stream-of-consciousness’ narrative style. While this may not have been the intention of Mr Sorensen at the start of his epic odyssey it becomes a unique and quite stunning device for telling the story of one of the most unique Cuban artists of an era – contemporary or otherwise.

Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums - Promotional Posters - A film by Soren Sorensen
Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums – A film by Soren Sorensen

The title of the film – Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums – is an oblique reference to JS Bach’s epic books I and II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, is well-intentioned yet also emerges as ironic and slightly irreverent when it deals with the poetics of Mr Sosa’s music. It is both daunting [and hardly fair] to even attempt a classification of Mr Sosa’s musical poetics despite the fact that the initial montage of interviews by several critics and producers use several epithet to describe the experience of listening to Mr Sosa.

Mr Sorensen therefore lets the music speak to the reference to what, in fact, unfolds as Mr Sosa’s percussive approach to the piano; the 88 keys – at well-tempered intervals – are manipulated by touch, articulation and dynamics into a symphony of melodic, harmonic, and percussive music that seems to emerge from deep inside the very heart of the pianist. The music is seemingly been composed by the restless nerve-endings of the pianist’s very finger-tips rather than the end of a pencil to be precise. And this is exactly what defines the role of Mr Sosa’s entire nervous-system in the whole musical equation: delicately controlled impulses naturally designed to interpret the language of the pianist’s heart and soul on which his unique humanity is written.

Mr Sorensen has divined the perfect technique for telling the story of Mr Sosa and his music. This is a breathtaking, non-linear narrative, but a wonderfully unfolding, deeply engrossing story full of agony, ecstasy, [musical] community and utter loneliness, all of which drives the artist – any artist, really – but which is a lifestyle that is so unique to Mr Sosa, that it becomes a life-story – from Cuba through [the liberation of] Angola to Europe and the United States, which is both terrible, as well as exhilarating; so full of doubt and pain and somehow full of triumphant, cathartic pathos as well.

This narrative weaves back and forth in time and place as Mr Sosa tells his story, accompanied by a musical commentary on the piano, often with other musicians. We live through the questing urges of the pianist, his sojourn from his birth in Camagüey, Cuba’s third-largest city, conservatory education in Havana, and relocation to Ecuador where he briefly wrote and arranged commercial jingles. Sosa’s story continues with a fateful mid-90s move to the U.S., a stint as a sought-after sideman in the Bay Area’s Latin jazz scene, and partnership with manager Scott Price that continues to this day.

Filmmaker Soren Sorensen during an interview about Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums Documentary
Filmmaker Soren Sorensen during an interview about Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums Documentary

Along the way we meet the globetrotting artist in various emotive and evocative settings – his duo with celebrated Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu is absolutely unforgettable where during a live performance the trumpeter ends the set by holding just one note while Mr Sosa propels the music with rhythmic cascades… until the trumpeter stands up, walks around the enormous concert grand and the rhythmically-yammering pianist as his note fades into the distance. We also meet with Mr Sosa’s Afri-Lectric Experience, and with his latest band, the Quarteto AfroCubano in storied venues including New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club. Sosa’s Quarteto AfroCubano features fellow Camagüey natives Ernesto Simpson on drums and Leandro Saint-Hill on alto saxophone and flute and bassist Childo Tomas, who hails from Maputo, Mozambique. Perhaps most thrilling for [Omar Sosa] fans will be the full-circle nature of Sosa’s 2015 album Ilé, which reunited Sosa’s music with its Cuban roots.

The most thrilling performances, by far, are Mr Sosa’s live performances with the Senegalese kora master, Sekou Keita, the Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles – a master maraquero – and the bewitchingly virtuosic and ethereally beautiful and Cuban-Swiss violinist, vocalist and dancer Yilian Cañizares, whose performance precedes the magical film’s dénouement. By this time we have discovered an artist whose quiet humanity is actually larger-than-life, whose puckish smile punctuates the raw silk of his speaking voice as he connects some of the dots in the woven narrative of a life in music; and who seems just a handshake away, yet retains his unique mystique. A son of the Orisha Eleguá or perhaps – one might begin to wonder – even the very personification of the Orisha himself – musically-speaking, of course…

Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums - Promotional Posters
Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums – A film by Soren Sorensen

Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums

Music by Omar Sosa / Edited by Soren Sorensen / Director of Photography Jason Rossi / Co-Executive Producers Jess Collins, Nathan Collins / Produced by Soren Sorensen & Scott Price / Directed by Soren Sorensen

USAFILMFESTIVAL.COM / OMARSOSAFILM.COM / OMARSOSA.COM

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