Omara Portuondo: Sentimiento
This Cuban legend is a singer, not a screamer. She lets the trumpets do the dirty work. They make suggestive sounds. She sounds seductive.
What Aretha Franklin is to American soul, Omara Portuondo is to Cuban music. She's the Grande Dame of the genre, known and beloved by anyone with even a glancing familiarity of the genre. Like Franklin, Portuondo is more than just a diva; she has attained an iconic status in her native land. She's a living legend.
Portuondo began her career in 1945 as a dancer in Havana's celebrated Tropicana nightclub. By the end of the decade she changed vocations and began singing professionally. She formed the vocal ensemble Cuarteto Las D'Aida with her sister Haydee, Elana Burke, and Moriama Secada. The group belonged to a generation of artists known as the "feeling movement" because they emphasized emotion and expressiveness over technical virtuosity. Las D'Aida were headliners in the cabarets of Havana and Miami during the '50s. The band mixed traditional Cuban music and other Latin styles, especially bossa nova and samba, with American jazz. After the Communist revolution, and the subsequent trade embargo against Cuba in the early '60s, Las D'Aida could no longer tour the United States. Portuondo's sister defected, but Omara chose to remain a Cuban citizen. She sang in the sugar cane fields to encourage the workers during Fidel Castro's great mobilization effort of 1967 and toured Asia and Eastern Europe during the '70s, but Portuondo's talents went unrecognized by most of the Western world until she was rediscovered in the late '90s as a result of Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club audio recordings and video documentary. Since then, she's released a few albums of all new material to great reviews and has been internationally recognized as one of the world's greatest singers.
The 15 songs on Sentimiento were originally issued on a number of different records on various labels between 1973 and 1996. There doesn't seem to be any particular rhyme or reason as to why these tunes were chosen for inclusion on this collection. They cover a range of Cuban and Latin American styles: boleros, sones, guaraches, rumbas, and such. What they share is typical of Portuondo's efforts. Every song reveals a sultry romanticism. The honey-voiced songstress makes each track appropriate as mood music for lovemaking.
Some of the songs are quiet and would provide the appropriate soft music for a candlelight dinner. She softly performs Orlando de la Rosa's lovely tune "Vieja Luna" with her voice sweet and low. She's accompanied by muted horns, strummed acoustic strings and a gentle percussion that plays a bossa nova beat. She doesn't get excited, but croons each phrase with a lilt that conveys an earnest intimacy. Or there's Alberto Vera's ardent "Te Quiera", another tender song in which the Cuban star rarely raises her voice. However her phrasing is much different here. She starts out annunciating the lyrics in a clipped voice, implying that she has control over her emotions, but soon starts extending the lines as if her passion has possessed her. By the time she finishes, Portuondo's voice has broken down into a stutter as if she is so overwhelmed by love that she can barely get out the words.
Other tunes are louder and performed with a fuller band, if not an orchestra. The fastest, brassiest track is Portuondo's vibrant version of Aldaberto Alvarez's "Aqua Que Cae Del Cielo". The song gives her the chance to belt out the lyrics. Despite the rhythmic intensity, the blaring of the horns, and the fast pace of the percussion, the Cuban chanteuse always remains in control. She's a singer, not a screamer. She lets the trumpets do the dirty work. They make suggestive sounds. She sounds seductive. The same thing is true of her version of the Ignacio Pineiro's punchy "Echale Salsita". The Havana native may trill her "rrr"s and make some appropriately punctuated "ahs", but she's always playfully in control.
Unfortunately, the album does not contain any information on who accompanies Portuondo, nor what instruments are played. This is probably the disc's greatest problem. On the plus side, the record is handsomely packaged in a bright and colorful cardboard case and contains songwriting and publishing credits, and the lyrics to all the songs. Sentimiento is one of Escondida Music's "Cuban Essentials" series that includes other prominent artists such as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Ruben Gonzalez. It's difficult to imagine a more talented roster of artists whose recordings have been largely unavailable to Western audiences.