Cuba’s Omara Portuondo, who’s affectionately known as “La Diva, La Reina and La Chica Mas Sexy,” always puts the accent on personality. At 85, she remains one of the all-time great vocal stylists; like her fellow Buena Vista Social Club compadre, the late Ibrahim Ferrer, she sings with a passionate conviction that comes only from life experience.
And what a life. Twenty 20 years ago, she and several other veteran musicians rose from relative obscurity to global stardom after American producer Ry Cooder tapped them for his one-off project, the Buena Vista Social Club, exploring the roots of Cuban son.
The Buena Vista saga reads like a fairy tale, with Portuondo, the group’s only female member, as its Cinderella. The first disc, “Buena Vista Social Club” (1997), became a worldwide hit, and led to a documentary and several solo spin-off discs. With the deaths of fellow Buena Vista stars Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ruben Gonzalez, Portuondo is the sole survivor of the older core group. Though most Americans know her primarily through the BVSC connection, her career stretches back to the ’50s, including stints with the Cuban groups Cuarteto d’Aida, Orquesta Anaconda and Orquesta Aragón.
She’s in the home stretch of her “Omara Portuondo 85 Tour,” on which she’s accompanied by a younger generation of talents: Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca (a longtime Buena Vista collaborator), American violinist Regina Carter and Israeli saxophonist-clarinetist Anat Cohen; the tour stops Oct. 21 at Orchestra Hall for a SCP Jazz Series concert.
Expect to hear her signature boleros (or ballads), along with generous portions of Cuban son, guarija and rumba. “The bolero is such a sentimental song,” she said. “It always contains a personal history, of those who have loved or loved before. I remember the boleros of the ’30s and ’40s, as well as the ones my parents used to sing to me. They’re all so very human; they always touch the heart of everybody.”
More from “La Chica Mas Sexy”:
How did this collaboration with Anat, Regina and Roberto come about?
It’s my 85th Anniversary Tour and I’m celebrating with good friends and musicians. For the U.S. tour I wanted to collaborate with gifted musicians like Anat Cohen and Regina Carter, and share the stage again with my dear friend Roberto Fonseca. Each one of them brings a different color and emotion to the music. I’m so happy!
You’re known for boleros but is there another musical style/genre in which you feel at home?
Music is universal and I love to sing any kind of genre. As long as the heart speaks … it can be a jazz standard, bossa or son.
August 6 was the 11th anniversary of death of your Buena Vista partner Ibrahim Ferrer. What’s your favorite memory of him?
I have tons of good memories of Ibrahim. He was a good person, honest and a very, very modest person. I’m thankful that life gave me the gift of sharing the stage with him.
Your voice still as vibrant and expressive as ever. What’s your secret to vocal longevity?
Thank you. Well, I take care of my instrument. I never smoked, and I don’t drink alcohol.
You have a definite fashion style that focuses on turbans and caftans — how did you choose this look?
It’s like my signature … my personal logo, and I’m very comfortable with it.
Are you encouraged by the recent thaw in U.S./Cuban diplomatic relations?
Musically speaking, I think this is good for people to meet our country and enjoy our music.
Your father, an acclaimed baseball star, played in the U.S. Negro Leagues; did he also encourage your music studies?
Oh, yes, both of them. He and my mom used to sing at home. They supported me and my sister Haydée [who also had a long career in music]. I’m very lucky for my family.
You’ve performed in Chicago many times, including Symphony Center. What’s your Chicago memory or connection?
Indeed, we came several times here, and I’m happy to do our Chicago stop [at Orchestra Hall] for my 85 Tour.
What would fans be surprised to learn about you?
Surprises are just like that … you have to discover and to explore. Come to the show, and I’m positive you will find out more (laughs).