At 85, Cuban Legend Omara Portuondo Is Still Working — And Feeling Young The Cuban singer was the only female member of the Buena Vista Social Club — but her career, which continues today, stretches back much further.
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At 85, Cuban Legend Omara Portuondo Is Still Working — And Feeling Young

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At 85, Cuban Legend Omara Portuondo Is Still Working — And Feeling Young

At 85, Cuban Legend Omara Portuondo Is Still Working — And Feeling Young

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Cuban singer Omara Portuondo came to international attention in the 1950s. That was before the country became isolated under the Castro regime. Portuondo got popular again in the '90s. She was the only female singer featured on the hit "Buena Vista Social Club" album. Now she's 85, and she's still performing. Betto Arcos caught up with her in Havana.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Sitting in the restaurant of the classy Capri Hotel, Omara Portuondo remembers a female Cuban composer who was part of the traditional troubadour scene from the 1920s to the '50s.

OMARA PORTUONDO: (Through interpreter) I've long admired Maria Teresa Vera. I've been listening to her songs since I was a little girl. That's why I sing "Veinte Anos."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIENTE ANOS")

PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Vera's song "Veinte Anos," 20 years, is Portuondo's showcase on the "Buena Vista Social Club" album.

DANILO LOZANO: And the interesting thing is she's reintroduced certainly internationally but to American culture with "Buena Vista Social Club."

ARCOS: Danilo Lozano is a music professor at Whittier College in California who specializes in Cuban music.

LOZANO: And again she becomes a major hit. And that was great because what she brought to it was, you know - what can I say? What she brought to it was magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VEINTE ANOS")

PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Portuondo's career began in Havana in places like the cabaret Salon Rojo and another club across the street from the hotel.

PORTUONDO: (Through interpreter) There at the Club 21, that's where I first started performing with Cuarteto D'Aida. All of these places are very important to me. They're part of my beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAS MUCHACHAS DEL CHA-CHA-CHA")

CUARTETO D'AIDA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Cuarteto D'Aida was an all-female group directed by pianist Aida Diestro. Portuondo says that's not all that made it different from the rest of the Cuban groups of the 1950s.

PORTUONDO: (Through interpreter) It was well-distinguished because director Aida Diestro harmonized us perfectly. And all of the great musicians of Cuba admired and respected her for that, for her approach using notes in such an extraordinary way.

ARCOS: Cuarteto D'Aida became a hit. The group toured the U.S. in the mid-'50s, performed with Nat King Cole and recorded an album for RCA Victor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROFECIA")

CUARTETO D'AIDA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: The group sang in a style called Filin, says Danilo Lozano.

LOZANO: The equivalent to what Filin would be like would be listening to a jazz ballad except that instead of listening to it instrumentally, you're listening to it vocally, delivered with an instrumental passion which is unique for Cuban music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOCHE CUBANA")

CUARTETO D'AIDA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Portuondo became known as La Novia del Filin, The Bride of Filin. It was a style of music that embraced both men and women. But Lozano says Portuondo's life spans the history of Cuban music from the 1940s to the present.

LOZANO: She has been an important exponent of many styles of Cuban music but particularly the music of Filin, where she really, really makes a big (speaking Spanish), as I say. She makes a mark in the music even though she's tremendously versatile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DONDE ESTABAS TU")

PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Portuondo turns 86 at the end of this month during her U.S. tour, and she has no plans to slow down.

PORTUONDO: (Through interpreter) Now, I'm not a little girl, but I feel like a little girl (laughter).

ARCOS: For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

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