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Final kiss from a Cuban legend

May 10. 2019
Portuondo at 88: “I feel like I’m 15!”/AFP
Portuondo at 88: “I feel like I’m 15!”/AFP
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By Agence France-Presse
New York

Buena Vista Social Club’s Omara Portuondo says ‘Adios’ to global fan club

AS REVOLUTIONS go, the emergence of Cuban music collective Buena Vista Social Club was certainly a peaceful one – but it sent cultural shock waves still vibrating today.

It is more than 20 years since the ensemble of mostly elderly musicians burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, going on to win a Grammy and sell millions of albums globally.

But one of its last original living legends, 88-year-old singer Omara Portuondo, is still on the road – enchanting audiences around the world with her lush vocals.

Portuondo at 88: “I feel like I’m 15!”/AFP

“I feel very honoured to be able to take our culture, our music, to the entire world,” she says prior to the New York date of her “Last Kiss/Ultimo Beso” world tour, cast as her final global hurrah.

“The Cuban music, the essence of being Cuban, the way we make our music and how people receive it with so much fervour ... we have to travel the world,” says the octogenarian, whose skin remains smooth and luminous against her crimson painted lips.

Gracing the stage to wild applause at a candlelit Manhattan club, Portuondo played a set of Cuban classics marked by pulsating Afro-Caribbean rhythms and warm, sensuous melodies, including the beloved “Guantanamera”.

The Buena Vista ensemble’s principal musicians came from Cuba’s pre-revolutionary musical old guard – coaxed out of retirement by Cuban star Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the World Circuit’s Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder.

Named after a Havana members-only venue, the Buena Vista Social Club became a global household name after putting out the eventual best-selling Cuban album of all time.

The 1997 eponymous work, recorded in just six days, exported a colourful portrait of Cuba infused with lust and sizzle – in sharp contrast to the dreary image of Fidel Castro’s communist nation crafted by the capitalist West.

Shrugging off questions over US-Cuba tensions – which thawed in recent years, only to frost over again under US President Donald Trump – Portuondo remains defiant: “Nothing can stop music.” 

It appears nothing can stop the Cuban diva, either. Donning a long white gown with a sheer red floral overlay, she shimmied in her seat as she brought her audience in New York to its feet.

Asked how she’s managed to keep performing decades after most hunker down for their twilight years, Portuondo raises her eyebrows at the suggestion she might be considered old.

“I feel like I’m 15!” she laughs, saying her fountain of youth is simply being born in Cuba. “We are hot, we love rhythm, joy, life.”

That sensibility, she added, has ensured the staying power of the Buena Vista Social Club – whose story has been immortalised in several documentaries including one by the acclaimed German director Wim Wenders.

Sporting a shiny red bow in her hair and gold hoop earrings, Portuondo’s steamy voice remained clear as ever, accompanied by the keys of another Cuban star, pianist Roberto Fonseca.

In his youth Fonseca attended a concert of the legend – who has worked the likes of Edith Piaf, Nat King Cole, Herbie Hancock and Chucho Valdes – and approached her afterwards to share his aspiration to play with her.

Today they share a flirty but familial relationship with chemistry as palpable offstage as on. “Now my dream has come true,” says 44-year-old Fonseca.

“Playing with her, I’m learning a lot of things. “Portuondo paints with music. It gives you a lot of knowledge about music – gives you a lot of knowledge about your own culture.”

Buena Vista Social Club’s 1997 debut album

The Buena Vista Social Club performed its “Adios” tour several years ago under the name “Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club”, given the dwindling numbers of veteran performers and an infusion of young talent.

But even if her “Last Kiss” tour truly is her ultimate, Portuondo appears set to keep performing until the end, even if only in her beloved Cuba – still her favourite spot to play.

“Hello, babies!” she croons to cheers to kick off her Manhattan concert.

When Fonseca, who plays beside her and turns her pages, told the crowd halfway through the set that the singer would take a break, she gave off airs of surprise.

As he led her offstage the enraptured audience whistled in delight, the animated Portuondo continuing to clap to the beat of conga drums, her hips never ceasing to sway.

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