Omara Portuondo to perform in the US for 1st time since ’03


Omara Portuondo, the sultry-voiced star of the Buena Vista Social Club, has been granted a visa to visit the U.S. for the first time since 2003 and hopes a dose of her sensuous sound can inspire both countries to improve frozen relations. The U.S. Treasury Department has granted Portuondo, who turns 79 this month, permission to perform at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on Oct. 20 and give a concert three days later at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Cuban music is the best medicine,” Portuondo said in a recent interview. “It’s good to be able to share culture, which is the soul of a people.”

The singer and dancer has visited the United States dozens of times. But the Bush administration tightened visa rules in 2003, making it tougher for Cuban musicians, artists and academics to travel there. Portuondo’s latest visit coincides with the U.S. release of her album “Gracias,” which has been nominated for a Latin Grammy in the category of best contemporary tropical album. Portuondo would not say if she will seek permission to attend the awards ceremony next month in Las Vegas.

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Portuondo played in San Francisco as part of a Buena Vista Social Club U.S. tour that began in November 1999. This time, she will be coming with her own band, which includes noted Cuban pianist Harold Lopez Nusa. “We are going to present this record which has been nominated for a Latin Grammy and is called ‘Gracias,'” she said. “On it, I’m doing just that, giving thanks to so many people from so many parts of the world, and other musicians, who have supported my career for 60 years.” Among those appearing on the album are Cuban jazz legend Chucho Valdés and Rocío Jimeénez, Portuondo’s granddaughter, who was just 8 when the album was recorded. Portuondo brought her granddaughter to the studio for fun, and the youngster began playfully singing along to the lead vocals. Portuondo was so pleased with the sound of the impromptu duets, that she recorded herself and Rocío singing the song “Cachita” together.

Asked what makes Cuban music so popular overseas, Portuondo said, “There’s something that comes through … Cuba’s happiness, a grace people like.” Portuondo’s mother came from a wealthy white Spanish family but scandalized her relatives by marrying a black Cuban baseball player. Her older sister Haydee landed a job dancing at Havana’s famed Tropicana cabaret, and Portuondo was a teenager when she was hired to dance there as well. The two recorded an album, toured the United States and played the Tropicana with Nat “King” Cole. Haydee left for the U.S. in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Portuondo stayed, even though the new government closed nightclubs and harassed performers. She said she could not imagine living away from Cuba’s fried cuisine and mild climate.

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