Interview of OMARA PORTUONDO | A Retrospective And Tribute To Her Life And Music
” Lo que me queda por vivir será en sonrisa “
” What I have left to live will be smiling ”
Sitting on a third row at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) known as a major center for progressive and avant-garde performance, I was in keen anticipation of a concert that was about to start. Suddenly the lights went down and the audience began to applaud and get loud; and there she appears, 85 years old Omara Portuondo, in a colorful golden dress with a sweet smile on her face connecting with us from stage. Accompanied by her impressive Cuban and later on guest musicians, I was fascinated by her powerful voice and engagement with the crowd. We danced, we cried, we screamed, we felt goose pumps, the energy was indescribable. That inspiring night will stay with me for a long time and her voice and vitality will always resonate within me. The concert was full of renowned Cuban songs and music, closing up with Besame Mucho which we all sang along with her.
To discover Omara’s music and voice you can listen to her albums or experience an extraordinary live concert.
To feel her own words, I asked her a few questions about her life, and that is what she said to me:
- We all want to love and be loved back. You sing about this topic in your songs. In your own words, how would you describe the relationship between you and yourself?
My relationship with the world is in giving love and peace, my songs and my smiles, this is my relationship between me and me, and all people in the world that bring me love and are receptive of me.
- What is the story of your love affair with music? How did all start?
It all begun with my parents, since I was a child they instilled in me the value of music, and afterward my connection with the young movement called “Feeling”.
- What is the role your family played in you evolving into an artist?
My family was crucial in my formation as an artist; they inspired me and contributed to making this happen. They always had a smile and sang together songs of María Teresa Vera, a very important composer and singer of 1940.
- What is your source of inspiration?
It is natural. As humans we have a natural condition where everyone has a predisposition for different forms of art. My life gave me my natural gift to be an artist, a singer and an actress.
- What is the origin of the musical style Feeling and what is your tie with it?
The word feeling means sentiment. In 1940’s in Cuba a movement of young composers such as Cesar Portillo, Jose Antonio Mendez and Angel Diaz wrote their songs accompanied by their guitars, these artists came up with an idea to call it “Feeling” as a feeling of sensitivity for the music they composed and sang.
- The Buena Vista Social Club framed a time in your musical career and the other way around. How would you describe that time?
The Buena Vista does not frame a time in my career, my career was already marked for many years at different times of my life, working with vocal quartets, groups, solo, as an actress… I have sung with symphony orchestras the music of Lecuona, The Buena Vista Social Club was just a continuation of my career.
- Surely every song has an important meaning for you. Is there a particular song that makes you feel like no other song? What is the story behind that song?
The song that has marked me is 20 años – “20 Years”. My parents sang it when I was a child. I also had the opportunity to meet this great composer, Cuban troubadour Maria Teresa Vera.
- These songs accompanied by your voice will live forever. Le queda mucho por vivir – “You still have much to live”. How do you celebrate life? What is the recipe for vitality, youth and beauty?
The recipe is to be happy, as the song says: Lo que me queda por vivir será en sonrisa – “What I have left to live will be smiling” that is my recipe of life, to feel young and surround myself with nice people who support me and help me. I love children, every time I have a little bit of time I visit schools of music. My granddaughter is studying percussion, her name is Rossio, she is already a teenager and I share with all of them very special moments.
- What does age means to you?
Nothing, I’m still young.
- Referring to all those colleagues and friends who are no longer here physically; do you feel their presence when singing songs that are part of your memories?
Yes, I remember them sometimes when I perform a song or when I share anecdotes about them.
- Roberto Fonseca is a great composer and a young musician originally from Cuba. What binds you to him?
Music! Roberto is a young and talented jazz and Cuban musician that is doing magnificent work in his own style.
- 85 years and still on stage, stomping and giving the audience the gift of sharing and transmitting your love for music. What do you feel when you sing? What is the feeling that goes through your body and is expressed through your beautiful voice on stage?
Well, I’ve never had alcohol or smoked, I go to bed early, occasionally I swim and that is what keeps me healthy, besides work itself.
- With an artistic career full of world tours, how have you managed to find the balance between your personal and your professional life?
Maintaining a balance between my family and me is supporting each other, furthermore, my son works with me for 25 years already.
- What are your plans for the future on a professional level? What is your biggest wish right now?
I have two albums to record this year; one with the Cuban company Egeren Record and the other one with Sony Record Latin. A duets album to record in February 2017, a presentation at the National Auditorium in Mexico City in January, another show that I have been invited to, a tour around Eastern European countries, three concerts in Cuba, and a scheduled tour around the world.
- You have lived a life full of experiences. Which of them you consider the most relevant?
All of them have been important… my family, my son, my granddaughter Rossio who I adore; all my dear friends, my siblings Hayde and Ivan, who are no longer physically but spiritually they are here with me, my sisters who are not my blood but were with me throughout my life; Rafaela, Estelita, Susana, that died recently. Still alive I have Luz, Syria, many friends Amaury Perez Padre, the composer Alberto Vera … Lo que me queda por vivir – “What I have left to live”, my dear beloved girls of the Cuarte de Hayda, Elena Burques, Moraima Secada, my sister Hayde Portuondo and Ayda Distro the director, all those.
- You are a legend of Cuban music, we admire you, and we celebrate with you your success. What is the meaning of true success for you?
That’s what my fans, music critics and journalists in Cuba think of me… true success for me is to be a good human being and cooperate for good causes. Did you know that I am a member of the International Red Cross? That I have performed concerts to raise funds for victims of wars or natural disasters ? This is the best recognition you can feel as a person and as a human. Last year, President Barack Obama invited the Buena Vista Social Club for Columbus Day to the White House, and I was able to greet and talk with him a little bit. Then I was invited to the main hall to listen to his speech celebrating The Hispanic Heritage…yes, our Cuban culture was in the White House!
- You are a great example on the idea that dreams can come true. What would be your advice to people who want to make their dreams come true?
Fight for what you want, be persistent, be yourself; you can have a lot and you can also lose a lot in a short period of time, it’s important to be a good human and consistent in your purpose, your principles, do things from your heart and be honest with yourself.
- We believe that the power of positive thinking is essential to livea happy life. From this point of view, do you believe that as humans we can do, be and have anything we want?
One should always be positive minded, although things do not always happen as expected. My son Ariel who has been working with me for 25 years, always tells me to have a positive mindset. I am a person with a little disbelief until I see things happen, but thinking positive is good for health and for life in general. My advice is to be optimistic, smile at life as a good smile says more than a sad face. That’s what my mother Esperanza and my father Portuondo always taught me.