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Always Omara

Omara PortuondoMaterial of great relevance to understanding the recent history of Omara Portuondo, intimacies of her work and her current career, is contained on the album Omara siempre, presented recently by Egrem studios.

The CD of 11 tracks comes with a DVD directed by Joseph Ross, showing the process of recording the disc, presented by Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal, musicologist Marta Valdés, and the disc’s producer, Alain Pérez.

Omara siempre carries much emotional weight, and is also convincing evidence of the continuing relevance of one the great figures of Cuban music of all times, but also of currently popular genres that have made Cuba known around the world.

The CD starts off with a version of “Sábanas Blancas,” Gerardo Alfonso’s tune that Omara (Havana, 1930) interprets backed by a rhythm that fits somewhere between popular music and jazz, two styles that ultimately define the disc.

With this album, the Buena Vista Social Club diva reclaims her place in Cuban musical territory and reaches out to exponents of other genres, including pop and trova, a practice she began several years ago to expand her work’s audience and creative range.

In “Otra realidad,” recorded by Diana Fuentes for her CD Planeta Planetario, the young singer accompanies Omara in her desire to go deeper into the essence established by the country’s great bolero artists.

The title is another feature worth noting – absolutely appropriate as it shows us an Omara who endures, and updates her work over time.

Cubans have always held a place in their hearts for “A la major el año que viene,” by Héctor Quintero. In this version, Issac Delgado reminds us of the singer he was 20 years ago, when he defined an era on television, and with his own dance band. Issac and Omara show a unique complicity on the track, which on its own merits has become part of our national identity. Pianist Rolando Luna, a star of Cuban jazz, joins them for the piece defined by stylized arrangements and perfect communion between all the instrumentalists.

Listeners may, at times, perceive similarities with the Rhythms-Del-Mundo series, which brought together internationally known pop and rock artists and Cuban musicians. This disc, Omara siempre, is to be enjoyed in quiet calm, and if the body allows, with a good drink on the table.

This is music that bears the country’s musical richness and obliges listeners to look back to discover how Omara has reached this point in full form, as evident not only on this album, but in the recent Buena Vista Social Club tours. The secret, if it exists, could be the need for continuity, to stay and continue her career, remembering that Cuban music is still a very diverse world, with thousands of doors to open and roads to travel.

At times, she moves away from more contemporary formulas, as in “La rosa oriental,” with the Septeto Santiaguero. Voice, traditional rhythms, and lyrics identified with the most deeply-rooted elements of the vast world that is Cuban music make this track a beautiful remake of a musical story written decades ago, that retains the brightness of its first day. But this is not a prettiness to be sold to tourists at souvenir stands, but rather another track, as we have said, that looks to go deeper into a story that has brought us to the present in a coherent manner, as it should be when we talk about the authenticity of Cuban music.

Omara and Juan Formell always had close ties, and “Y tal vez” by the founder of Los Van Van, is part of her continuing tribute to Formell since his death. An evocative, contemporary song, like the work of both Formell and Omara, “Y tal vez” is another legend appearing in all its glory on the disc, with Robertón, a Van Van front man, shaping the song’s architecture to make dancers happy.

Also accompanying Omara on the album are Yulaisi Miranda, a Sonando en Cuba contest winner, for “Son al Son,” by César Portillo de la Luz; Aymée Nuviola (Popurrit); Alain Pérez (Amarte no me cuesta nada); and Beatriz Márquez, who sings “Tristeza” with Omara, uniting their respective spiritual universes and distinct creative personalities, with remarkable success.

As a bonus track, the CD has “Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón,” by Fito Páez, evoking the endurance and constant renovation of the work of a singer who has found ways to be reborn, overcome the obstacles of time, and preserve the power of one of Cuba’s most representative voices.

This last track of the album is a duo with Lila Downs, who, like Omara, has the gift of singing songs filled with heartbreak, while at the same time conveying a curing touch to any broken spirit. They sing alone and together, “Tanta sangre que se llevó el río y yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón” (so much blood down the river, and I come to offer my heart). Experiencing such a ritual requires quiet, letting yourself go, to embrace the silent complicity of the music. “A spoonful of love” Omara and Lila would later recall the recording, as they talked of their countries and hopes of change, for change. Nothing more.

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