Cuban Music Legend Omara Portuondo Sends 'Last Kiss' To Fans Now 88 years old, Cuba's musical matriarch wants to perform for audiences until she dies. "What I have left to live for is smiles," Portuondo says.

Cuban Diva Omara Portuondo Feels As Strong As Ever On 'Last Kiss' World Tour

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Cuban singer Omara Portuondo has been performing for nearly 70 years. She's danced at Havana's famous Tropicana Cabaret in the 1950s. She sang with an all female vocal quartet. She had a solo career and was the only woman in the Buena Vista Social Club. She began her latest world tour. It's being billed as her Last Kiss. NPR's Mandalit del Barco sat down with her in Los Angeles.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In 1996, Omara Portuondo was in a Havana recording studio working on an album while upstairs, American musician Ry Cooder was laying down tracks for the Buena Vista Social Club. Portuondo was invited to come up and sing a duet with then 89-year-old Compay Segundo.



JUAN DE MARCOS GONZALEZ: This was a live recording without rehearsal - one take. It's unbelievable.

DEL BARCO: Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez had scouted the group of veteran musicians for the project.

DE MARCOS GONZALEZ: I remembered that once Mr. Ry Cooder told me, well, Omara is the Cuban Sarah Vaughan. And I said him, no. Sarah Vaughan was the American Omara Portuondo.

DEL BARCO: Now 88 years old, Portuondo sometimes sings her answers to questions about her long career.

OMARA PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "I'm Cuban, and I'll die Cuban," she sings from her downtown LA hotel room before a recent gig at The Regent Theatre, where she had the audience clapping, dancing and singing along.


PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

ROBERTO FONSECA: Omara is the most important singer on our culture.

DEL BARCO: Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca is performing with Portuondo on this world tour.

FONSECA: She is able to do any kind of stuff from the Afro-Cuban style, Latin jazz, jazz, bolero, rumba. The audience, the public, they're crying and smiling, dancing. All the time, she's making joke.

ALICIA ADAMS: Yeah. She's flirting with the audience the whole time.

DEL BARCO: Alicia Adams is international program director for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She recalls seeing Portuondo peeking out from beneath the curtain to wave to her fans during the center's Cuban Arts Festival last year. Adams says the singer has always been a cultural ambassador in good times and bad.

ADAMS: She spans before the revolution and after the revolution - from before, when there was much more ability to go back and forth until later years after the revolution, when things were not so easy in terms of that kind of travel.

DEL BARCO: Unlike some other Cuban musicians, Portuondo chose not to defect to the U.S.

PORTUONDO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: She says she comes and goes from her home in Cuba as she likes - pretty much like her father, Bartolo Portuondo. He'd been a black professional infielder for both the Cuban league and the Negro leagues in the U.S.

PORTUONDO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "He was a great baseball player," she says. Her mother, who was white, scandalized her upper-class family by marrying him. Portuondo says when she was a little girl, she dreamed of being a ballet dancer.

PORTUONDO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "But in those days," she says, "you could only dance ballet if you were white." Instead, she and her sister Haydee danced and sang at Havana's famous Tropicana. In 1945, the sisters formed a quartet with two other women.


CUARTETO D'AIDA: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Cuarteto D'Aida even backed Nat King Cole when he performed in Havana. Portuondo sang with the quartet for 15 years before launching a solo career. She was part of what in Cuba came to be known as the movimiento filin - the feeling movement, singers who interpret lyrics with great emotion.


PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Portuondo remained a star in Cuba. But it was the Buena Vista Social Club that introduced her to an even bigger audience in the U.S. and around the world. Despite her age, she's continued to tour. Juan de Marcos Gonzalez says the idea of this latest series of performances being her last kiss is just a marketing ploy.

DE MARCOS GONZALEZ: She is going to die on a stage. That's what she wants. She's the Cuban diva.

PORTUONDO: (Speaking Spanish, singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Omara Portuondo says this is not goodbye. What I have left to live for, she sings, are smiles and singing.

PORTUONDO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: She says, I still have time.


PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


PORTUONDO: (Singing in Spanish).

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