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February 26, 2009

Fine Cut Cubans: Omara Portuondo's New Album Pays Homage to Her Native Country

Omara
Portuondo takes a rare time out.

by John Oseid

The Buena Vista Social Club is the gift that keeps on giving. It has been over a decade since Ry Cooder recorded with the crew, turning a handful of forgotten Cuban musicians into international octogenarian heartthrobs. Now come two new BVSC-related projects that make for the ultimate stimulus package.

The only female in the BVSC collective, chanteuse Omara Portuondo presents her favorite songs in the serene new album Gracias. She includes a few tunes composed by Cuba's beloved Pablo Milanés, a principal member of the post-revolution Nueva Trova movement. Milanés joins her in singing the lovely "Ámame como soy" (Love me as I am). Her old friend Chucho Valdés (whom I brought you last month) adds his singular piano touch, and her young granddaughter joins her for a sweet nursery rhyme, backed by the simple clacking of claves.

But Gracias is not strictly a nostalgia tour. Portuondo brings on a handful of my favorite performers for new songs, as well.

Omarayelena
An original photo of Portuondo (bottom left) and her group in the 50s.
Photo: Montuno Producciones y Eventos

A great lover of Brazilian music, Portuondo invited the country's brilliant singer/composer Chico Buarque to write "O que sera." He sings it with her in a gorgeous bilingual duet. Uruguay's Jorge Drexler, the Oscar-winning composer of the beautiful song "Al Otro Lado del Río" (featured in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries), composed the album's title track and sings with her as well.

If the Buena Vista Social Club made stars out half a dozen elderly musicians, the youngest of them was actually the driving force behind the production. Juan de Marcos is still going strong with high-octane dance tunes and, for the first time in many years, he's just started touring the states again with his Afro-Cuban All Stars. Tonight they are at UC Berkeley, and they finish in Miami on April 11.

More music:
* In this video clip, Portuondo gets emotional talking about the early days of her sixty-year career, which included dancing at the Tropicana Club.
* A handful of international musicians add their flavors to Gracias. All of them are renowned in their own rights and worth discovering: Cuban Roberto Fonseca plays piano; Cameroonian jazz guitarist Richard Bona lends vocals; Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu plays tabla; and young Israeli Avishai Cohen shows off his bass playing.
* Sadly, two weeks ago bassist Cachaíto López, who contributed to the new Portuondo album, became the latest BVSC alum to pass away. Tributes came from around the world. Here's a clip from the Nonesuch label of him working in the studio.
* Part Two and Part Three of the promotional videos for Ms. Portuondo's Gracias are filled with wonderful vintage clips of Havana stage shows, and include her singing in a 50s Winston cigarette ad.
* More Juan de Marcos & Afro-Cuban All Stars tour dates include Austin on March 6, New York on March 28, and Atlanta on April 4. Their new CD and live DVD package Absolutely Live will be available at concerts. Here's a clip.
* The Afro-Cuban All Stars gained a huge following with their 1997 album A Toda Cuba Le Gusta and the 1999 album Distinto Diferente.

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