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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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