When song stylist Omara Portuondo makes a stop at Memorial Hall Friday during her triumphant tour behind the album Gracias, she'll finally break the Triangle's Cuban artistic drought: The last Cuban artist to play here was Barbarito Torres, who, like Portuondo, was an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club. His lush acoustic show at Cat's Cradle in December 2003 took place just days after BVSC pianist Rubén González died.
"Yes, we're here now," Portuondo said recently by phone from Havana. "I'm very happy about it because culture has to have its space."
Images of González, Ibrahim Ferrer and other Buena Vista stars galivanting among New York City landmarks entered the zeitgeist in 1998 via Wim Wenders' film. But after Sept. 11, Cuba was among a number of countries whose artists no longer received FBI clearances from Homeland Security, bringing the U.S. visa process to a standstill.
For Portuondo, who turned 80 last week while performing on a California stage, picking up her Latin Grammy in Las Vegas last fall was a historic milestone. Returning to America was another: Portuondo was the first Cuban resident to present at the awards show, and she was one of the first Cuban artists to receive a U.S. visa under new Obama administration rules. The Buena Vista boom of the late '90s reignited Portuondo's popularity with American audiences, but her ties to North American musical culture have a history long and deep.
Indeed, the 2009 Latin Grammys weren't the first trip to Sin City for the dignified diva, known for her elegant, mature beauty and a voice that exudes both warmth and occasional girlishness. She played Vegas in 1951 with the Tropicana's traveling cabaret show. On one of her tours, Portuondo sang a duet with Graciela, the legendary vocalist of New York's first Cuban-style big band, Machito & His Afro-Cubans. In Cuba, both women had sung—but at different times—with the all-female Orquesta Anacaona.
"I haven't counted them [U.S. tours], but that was the first one," Portuondo recalls.
Later, in the '60s, Portuondo teamed with Nat King Cole during his visit to Cuba. She's now working on an homage to Cole's Spanish language albums.
Born in 1930, Portuondo started out as a teenage dancer with nightclub acts like "Las Mulatas del Fuego." She sang on Cuban radio while still in high school, having gravitated toward the burgeoning filin movement in the mid-1940s, spearheaded by composer César Portillo de la Luz.
"Filin means sentimiento," she translates—literally, a Spanish take on the English word "feeling."
At her very first performance with Loquibambia, the group led by pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, she came by an artistic nickname that stuck—La Novia del Filin, or the Sweetheart of Filin. At that point, she was the only woman in the group.
Unlike most Cuban music, the filin genre is intended more for listening than for dancing. One of the hallmarks of the style, says ethnomusicologist Robin Moore in his Cuba study, Music and Revolution, is its expressive use of rubato, or "stolen time"—i.e., liberties with the phrasing. Early "race" records and North American jazz singers such as Maxine Sullivan are often cited as a primary influence, but as Portuondo points out, filin artists were simply music aficionados who drew on a wide range of international sources.
"We also sang Brazilian music, because we knew it. We sang Italian music, because we knew it. From Spain we had zarzuelas, all the Spanish music. Almost all cultures were available to us—we had access to them, to know them and to enjoy them," she says.
Filin's international sensibility continues to shape Portuondo's work today; Gracias, released in 2008, features the collaboration of Uruguayan, Cameroonian, Israeli, Indian and Brazilian musicians and producers—as well as Cubans, of course.
Portuondo emphasizes that filin was "a national movement." As the name implies, it had a distinct Cuban accent, with its own swing and sentiment. Over time, filin has generated a classic repertoire, which Portuondo faithfully propels forward on discs such as 1999's Desafios, a collaboration with Chucho Valdes.
Portuondo's background in harmonizing, still evident in her many duo recordings, goes back to elementary school, where she sang in the chorus. But her real education came in Cuarteto D'Aida, a top female vocal quartet that pushed the envelope for Cuban popular music at the time. Backed by leader Aida Diestro on piano, or big band arrangements by consummate colorist Chico O'Farrill, the Cuarteto's productions are loaded with eerie chromaticism and spirited vocal effects. The high-pitched caws heard on "Las Mulatas del Cha Cha Cha" were Omara's specialty, something she still reproduces occasionally.
"They broke rules," says Cuban-American singer Teresa Fernández. A Havana native who now lives in Raleigh, Fernández remembers seeing Cuarteto D'Aida live at the Tropicana in the 1950s. "They would take a melody and do a harmony that was not ever done before."
Portuondo's voice has deepened since then, and while tastes have changed many times over her long, sometimes glitzy career, it continues to evoke something eternal. Portuondo remains a people's performer for a simple reason: The songs she sings are known and sung by everyone in Cuba.
"There's a lullaby, 'Drume Negrita,' that my parents sang to me when I was a little girl. I sang it to my son, and we sang it to my granddaughter. That song is from 1930," remembers Portuondo. "It has passed from generation to generation and continues to hold its ground."
"I think what she really wants to show [now], in her persona, is the story of Cuba," says Fernández. "This is how we feel."
With Cuban music on ice since that chilly night in 2003, the return of feeling's sweetheart will be a welcome breaking of the silence.
Read more of Sylvia Pfeiffenberger's interview with Omara Portuondo at her blog, Onda Carolina.