Once neglected, then remembered bigtime

At something of an advanced age, several years ago, the elegant Omara Portuondo suddenly found herself at the epicenter of a blossoming World Music scene as one of several veteran Cuban acts featured in the extremely popular Wim Wenders music documentary «Buena Vista Social Club.» It cast light on the remarkable international emergence of a group of gifted yet neglected old-school Cuban musicians, including old bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer, pianist Ruben Gonzalez (who passed away on December 8, 2003) and Portuondo, who had been overrun by contemporary musical trends in their country. Yet the nostalgic magic of the guild’s old-school sounds was overwhelmingly received by the relatively recent – at the time – World Music circuit. The «Buena Vista Social Club» album, released on an independent label, World Circuit, prior to the documentary’s release, went on to sell over 4 million copies worldwide and made international stars out of the aging and disregarded Cubans. Moreover, they released a series of worthy solo albums following the interest generated by the runaway success of «Buena Vista Social Club.» Portuondo, who performed a memorable show in Greece several summers ago with the old-school collective as part of a Buena Vista Social Club world tour, returns this week as a solo act for one performance at the Vrachon Theater in the capital’s Vyronas district on Thursday. The artist’s career began way back in 1945, initially as a dancer at a well-known Cuban cabaret club, the Tropicana. Soon afterward, Portuondo turned to singing and joined the Loquibambla Swing Band which played a Cuban version of bossa nova influenced by American jazz. It was the emerging act’s next project, however, as a member of the all-female vocal quartet Las D’Aida, with which Portuondo established her fame. The group, which enjoyed a sturdy 15-year stretch to become one of the more important acts in Cuban musical history, toured the US, while its performing highlights included sharing the stage with Nat King Cole. When bilateral ties between Cuba and the US deteriorated amid the Cold War developments, Portuondo opted to stay isolated in her country rather than pursue glory in the wider world. In 1967, five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Portuondo embarked on a solo career at home. During the 1970s, she collaborated with the famed Cuban orchestra Aragon for a run that included extensive touring in the former Eastern bloc, as well as performances in France and Japan. In the years that followed, Portuondo’s career began to wind down as younger acts performing and recording more contemporary Cuban styles began to take over. Her career’s downward trajectory, however, reached an astonishing and unexpected end in 1997 with the release of the «Buena Vista Social Club» album and the ensuing documentary. Portuondo, who featured as the project’s only female singer, won a Grammy Award for her efforts. The venture’s runaway success led to an extensive tour which included stops in Amsterdam, New York – at Carnegie Hall, as captured in the Wenders documentary – and in Athens, at the open-air Lycabettus Theater. Wenders, commenting on the veteran acts of the Buena Vista Social Club project and its degree of authenticity noted, at the time: «I wouldn’t separate their lives and their history from the music itself. That music is so emotional and rich, and so full of their life stories that you just can’t divide it up.» The project was coordinated by celebrated American guitarist Ry Cooder, who traveled to Havana in 1996 to gather the forgotten Cuban legends for a collective album imbued with a traditional feel. He produced the album and also contributed musically. Now, in the wake of it all, Portuondo, born in 1930, is again on the road, with Athens as her next stop this Thursday.