Buena Vista's musical club brought Cuba to the world

Until the album Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo was languishing like her fellow stars in relative obscurity. Here she tells Miguel Cullen how it changed her life OMARA Portuondo s voice sounds sweeter than through any vocal booth harmoniser as i

Until the album Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo was languishing like her fellow stars in relative obscurity. Here she tells Miguel Cullen how it changed her life

OMARA Portuondo's voice sounds sweeter than through any vocal booth harmoniser as it crackles down the phone trans-Europe into my ear in Swiss Cottage.

It is tempered by the salt spray of Havana's Malecon, by the distressed facades that overlook it and the lives lived behind those walls.

With whispery, agile tones, the Cuban singer draws the tentative interviewer close to her quickly by talking - not of the melancholy languor of life in La Habana or her role in the Buena Vista Social Club - but of her love affair with Sherlock Holmes.

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"It was through reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes that I discovered about life in England - the mist, always having to carry around an umbrella, tea at five. He and his doctor friend Watson taught me about your idiosyncrasies before I ever arrived there," she says.

Although no stranger to world tours before the birth of the Buena Vista Social Club, the recording had for her, as for the other members of the group, the effect of a resurrection.

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The stars were languishing in relative obscurity, forgotten and out of fashion in a communist Cuba that wanted to forget the pre-revolutionary cheer of the 1940s.

"I wouldn't exist as a singer if it wasn't for that record. I wouldn't be talking to you," she says. "I remember my mother teaching me to sing Veinte Anos [one of Portuondo's hits on the album] when I was a little girl. They invited me to sing it with Ry Cooder recording and that was that.

"The record worked because it united a series of fantastic, transcendental elements. What we sang was already very well known within Cuba. It wasn't transmitted outside because, well, this is Cuba."

It is no surprise that Portuondo's life was to be characterised by struggle. Her very birth represented a conflict.

She was born to a wealthy Spanish mother who caused a scandal by running away with a successful black baseball player.

One of three sisters, she was an actress and a dancer before settling into the trade that would make her a star.

There is a moment in the Wim Wender's film of the group when Ibrahim Ferrer - who died aged 77 in 2005 - and Portuondo are duetting Silencio facing each other.

Portuondo's dark expressive eyes seem to be communicating an infinite suffering to Ferrer.

Asked about her relationship with him, she is effusive.

"I miss him more than you can imagine. He was a true gentleman. We played so many places together - we would combine spontaneously. I still cry when I hear his songs. When I sing Dos Gardenias it helps me to remember him."

Ferrer played one of his last ever concerts at Kenwood House in 2005.

Portuondo, whose recordings span back to the 1950s, is no stranger to the creative process. This year brings her latest album, Gracias.

"It is a thank-you to all the people who have helped me - all the journalists, the musicians, the writers, editors, people like Ry Cooder, to my parents who told me that I would be famous."

Her son Ariel Gimenez has written a song for the album and her granddaughter Rocio even features in snippets.

Musical direction comes from the Brazilian Swami Junior, while all the rest of the musicians in her group are young Cubans.

"I miss England, Kenwood too," she says. "It's been too long since I last played there. I'm looking forward to being there again with the rest of Buena Vista Social Club."

It is only when she asserts that the Brits have rhythm that one begins to suspect a practiced Latin flattery - but it's gratefully received.

"The British shaped the world. The Beatles created an amazing music that everyone remembers. We have a statue of John Lennon in Havana."

"I don't sing so people can dance - I sing for people to listen," asserts the grande dame of Cuban music, and I believe her.

Listening to the words of Silencio - that intense duet with Ferrer which left Portuondo's eyes heavy with tears - makes you wonder about her life.

"In my garden / sleep the white lily, the gladioli and the rose / my soul weighed down and heavy / wants to hide that bitter pain from those".

Listening to that voice, one wonders how much she's suffered, through love, through the privations of Castro, through the social exclusion engendered by her mixed race blood, as she looks out of her flat on Havana's Malecon onto the foam of the Gulf of Mexico.

o Omara Portuondo stars at the Kenwood Concerts on

Saturday. To book tickets, call 0844 412 2706 or log on to www.picnicconcerts.com.

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