By Anees Aref.
A loosely structured film veering back and forth between the past and present….It’s filled with nostalgia and sentiment, though as we hang around Omara we find she is interested in neither [and] focused on the present….”
Omara Portuondo, the Grand Dame of the Riviera, aka the Grand Diva, doesn’t like to be called old, or a diva for that matter. She prefers to be called senorita, and is the subject of the new documentary Omara, directed by Hugo Perez. It follows the legendary Cuban singer around the world as she performs her “third” farewell tour. It’s a loosely structured, laid-back film that also provides a breezy overview of Omara’s life and career, veering back and forth between the past and present as she takes us through her life story. It’s filled with nostalgia and sentiment, though as we hang around Omara we find she is interested in neither. She’s focused on the present, living in the moment and bored by questions about age or vitality even as she nears 90 (the film appears to have been shot mainly in 2019 and early 2020, pre-pandemic). One loses count of how many times she politely suffers questions from interviewers about still singing at this advanced age: “what’s your secret?” or “how do you keep going at this age?”. “Age doesn’t matter… except maybe in the sexual act” she jokes at one point.
Omara was of mixed parentage, a white mother and a black father, something that profoundly shaped her identity and in many ways her musical gifts. Born in 1930 and raised in the poor Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso, she notes how her mother Esperanza Pelaez, from a relatively well-off family, was largely shunned as a result of marrying a black man, “this was not done in those days” she says. Her father, Bartolo Portuondo, was a baseball player and passionate admirer of music, singing at home with the young Omara. We see how her personal and musical appeal cut across these racial lines, from friends and collaborators to the countless fans she enchanted across the country and around the world.
Starting out in clubs with her sister Haydee, including the famous Cabaret Tropicana, she initially came to national attention with the Aida Quartet. The revolution of 1959 would cause a rupture in the relationship between the sisters, with Haydee fleeing the country for the United States shortly after. Omara stayed. Over the years her fame grew, and she performed and recorded with a number of major Cuban musicians as well as internationally renowned artists, including Nat King Cole. She eventually focused on her solo career, and performed in a variety of musical styles and genres, from the traditional Cuban boleros to jazz and son cubano.
Personal tragedies seem to inform the deep emotional resonance of her music and charisma. Like Billie Holiday or Édith Piaf, Omara seems to live the music she sings.”
The present day is the central focus, however, traveling from Havana to New York to Tokyo, Japan. Omara’s talent is inspiring, and it’s amazing how strong her singing voice still is. What’s especially striking is the humor. She jokes with interviewers and admirers, making some blush and embarrassing others when asking questions about age. Transitioning between English and Spanish in conversation, she tells one interviewer who praises her beauty: “Thank you but I wouldn’t marry him because he’s too ugly”, to which her translating companion sheepishly says “I won’t say that”. Her son Ariel is her traveling companion and manager, a charming relationship that Ariel acknowledges has its complications. They have a nice rapport throughout the film. The film mentions Omara’s only marriage, which resulted in divorce for apparently unknown reasons. Omara lost her mom to cancer when she was age 19. This and other personal tragedies seem to inform the deep emotional resonance of her music and charisma. Like Billie Holiday or Édith Piaf, Omara seems to live the music she sings. “Emotion, Emotion, Emotion” as fellow artist Diego El Cigala describes it.
After a difficult period for the country in the 1990s, Omara’s career saw rejuvenation with her collaboration on the internationally acclaimed album “Buena Vista Social Club”, which included famed Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer and American guitarist Ry Cooder. The recording became an international sensation and saw the group take the album on tour while also appearing in director Wim Wenders’ film Buena Vista Social Club. Omara was in a sense “rediscovered” with this project, and continued to record additional albums with the group. She remains a member to this day.
Though Omara largely avoids politics, the U.S.-Cuba conflict hangs over the film. It seems more could’ve been explored here. Given that she stayed while her sister fled the revolution, one can assume she supported the revolutionary government. Having said that, I’d have still been curious to hear more of Omara’s take on the Castros and Cuban political developments in the ensuing decades. How did she view the U.S. blockade of Cuba? Did she think her career would’ve evolved differently had she had more exposure to the American market?
Alas, Omara favors the personal over the political. It’s a travesty Omara remains largely unknown to American audiences. She was finally acknowledged with a Latin Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2019. Her career is a metaphor for the American shunning of Cuba, a rich and vibrant culture effectively choked by America’s pincers for now over 60 years. Viva la Omara.
Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States.