OMARA PONTUONDO / “Omara Pontuondo Mixtape”
Monk wrote a stunning song: "Crepuscule With Nellie." I was really smitten by the melody and of course Thelonious also sent me to the dictionary to look up that strange word. It means the time of evening just after the sun has gone down but it’s not yet fully dark, not all the way night, day not all the way done. The hour right after the golden hour.
Senior citizens are in the crepuscule of their lives. Most of us just retire silently fading into the onrushing dark but there are some for whom song remains strong, the spirit is bright and the taste of life is still fresh.
Meet Omara Pontuondo, born 1930 in Havana. She has had a long career and is well known, well loved in Cuba. She recorded her first album, Magia Negra, in 1959 but continued to sing in Cuarteto las d’Aida, a group founded by Omara and her sister Haydee. In 1967 Omara officially went solo and throughout the seventies and early eighties recorded frequently and toured worldwide.
But something extraordinary happened as she approached seventy. She was the only female member of the soon to become world famous Buena Vista Social Club, a collaborative of Cuban musicians who flew the flag of popular Cuban music from the forties and fifties.
They had an élan, a love for life, a delightful way of making music and of enjoying what they were doing. Just to listen to them made you feel happy. But they were also slowly dying off. What was extraordinary is that Omara got stronger as she became older.
Sure, her voice wasn’t as elastic as it once was, gone were the bell clear high notes but the deep end of her instrument glowed like gold in a river bed. And she used the accumulated experience of fifty years of singing to issue a series of recordings after the turn of the century that stand as reference points for Cuban music.
I know of no other singer who has made so many stirring records after hitting seventy. Omara is an absolute phenomenon. You know the old saying about canines in their dotage and acquiring new abilities, well in Omara’s case no studio trickery is required on her recordings. It just plain old musical magic the way she keeps coming up with freshness after freshness in her approaches to making music.
I had not followed her career, so for me the discovery went backwards. Although I can hear why she was popular when I listen to her early recordings, her pre-seventies music does not move me as much as the music she has put together just before and after 2000. She didn’t just catch a second wind, sister love was a veritable hurricane blowing through with a range of skills.
At mid career, and what would be the down-side for many popular singers, Omara recorded an eponymous collaboration with guitarist Martin Rojas and it is an absolute marvel. At the time it was widely considered the apogee of her recording career. Her voice’s youthfulness was in full bloom; her passion and penchant from dramatic readings were given full reign, and unlike the majority of her repertoire, she gave full vent to her political views.
Next to sentimental ballads, you had battle anthems and hymns of solidarity for Allende and the people of Chile. “Hasta Siempre” is a praise song for Che Guvera. Even if you dislike the Cuban revolution and think it excessive, you will nonetheless find much to like on this 1974 recording. It is a virtual summation of all of Omara’s strengths. Who could have known that thirty years later when she’s in her seventies she would be putting together an even more important brace of excellent recordings.
I must confess, I don’t know what I’m doing. My Spanish is mostly hola/adios, and I’ve not studied Cuban music deeply enough to construct a solid time line but I have keen ears and a love for clave and caliente ritmo. I also appreciate singers who can embrace different approaches and who aren’t afraid to improvise. In a nutshell that’s why I’m crazy for Omara’s new stuff. (Now there’s an oxymoron for you: talking about “new stuff” from a singer who is a septuagenarian.)
Of the albums both ushering in the first decade of the new millennium and immediately following the turn of the cenutry, my favorite is Gracias, a gracious “thank you” to everyone from musicians and engineers to concert goers and record buyers, Omara thanks each and everyone for supporting the music over the years. The album is full of gems including a handful of collaborations with a range of musicians. I’m particularly smitten by her duet with Cuban musical icon Pablo Milanes and with Cameroonian bassist/vocalist Richard Bona.
But don’t take my selection of Gracias as a slight of the other albums. Indeed, Flor De Amor’s blend of leading Cuban and Brazilian musicians produces an album absolutely stunning in its sensitive use of ensemble and chorus. And then there is the force of her duets with Cuban pianist Chucho on which the two of them pack more punch than a maelstrom. Chucho is an Afro-Cuban jazz master and Omara hangs in there with him every note of the way, demonstrating scatting abilities and raw power at appropriate moments. Palabras is the quieter album, the blush and smile rather than the hearty laugh and back-slapping hilarity we get when Omara and Chucho tangle on Desafios. Palabras also has the sterling lead trumpet over percussion that is characteristic of jazz influenced Cuban music (undoubtedly, Dizzy Gillespie’s profound appreciation of and promotion of Cuban music, including hiring Cuban musicians, had something to do with the profusion of trumpet players in Afro-Cuban circles).
I have not included any of her music from Buena Vista, not because I don’t think it of equal importance, but simply because it is so widely available. I’ve chosen to feature some music that casual music lovers may not have heard.
When you consider the range of the music, isn’t it truly amazing that this much music could come from someone whom most of us in America would consider as nursing home material? This is no nostalgic, retro attempt at recapturing old glories. This is music of the here and now, gutsy when need be but always elegant, impassioned but always sensitive. This is the music of Omara Portuondo.
In leaving I call attention to her two versions of the old Cuban lullaby “Drume Negrita.” On the version from Palabras. Omara perfectly conjures up the scene of mother singing to child. We featured this one along with many other versions back in January 2008. Go here to read our write-up.
I bring all this up about "Drume Negrita” because the second version, the last track on the Mixtape, featuring Richard Bona, is completely other-worldly. I have beaucoup versions but not a one approaches the inventiveness of this masterful merger of vocals and rhythms.
Gotta give it up for Omara Portuondo, it’s a fact and not a cliché when we refer to her as “legendary,” for in truth her artistic longevity is the stuff of which legends are made. Mark my words, even in the next millennium students of Cuban music will have to familiarize themselves with the immense, impressive and important body of work she has produced.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Omara Portuondo Mixtape Playlist
Omara Portuondo & Martin Rojas (1974)
01 “Los Caminos”
02 “A Salvador Allende en Su Combate por la Vita”
03 “Chile Presente”
04 “Cuento para un Nino”
05 “Hasta Siempre”
Flor De Amor (2004)
06 “Mueve La Cintura, Mulato”
07 “Junto A Un Canaveral”
08 “Habanera Ven”
09 “Casa Calor”
12 “La Vida es un Sueño”
13 “Drume Negrita”
Desaﬁos (Omara & Chucho Valdés) (1999)
14 “En nosotros”
15 “Danza ñáñiga”
17 “Qué te pedí”
18 “O Que Será” - featuring Chico Buarque
19 “Adiós Felicidad”
20 “Ámame como Soy” - featuring Pablo Milanés
21 “Drume Negrita” - featuring Richard Bona
This entry was posted on Monday, September 13th, 2010 at 3:04 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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