Omara Portuondo is more than a woman. She is a demi-goddess. The only reason why I ascribe her the status of a demi-goddess instead of a full goddess is that I, a mere mortal, selfishly still want her to share some kind of connection with the rest of us down here on earth.
I had the privilege of watching her perform live with la Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club last night at the Hollywood Bowl. Up until last night, I only knew of this singular musical group through documentaries and songs that my high school Spanish teacher thrust upon me when she realized I had both a penchant for the Spanish language and an inclination toward Spanish music. I have never been more grateful for her eagerness to share their extensive discography with me than last night when I was seated among 5,000 others who came to see this group perform live.
The Buena Vista Social Club began as an actual club in Havana, Cuba, circa 1940. They hosted dances, parties, and musical shenanigans. It was as much a community within itself as it was a musical epicenter in the region. Although most of the original members have passed on, the music has survived through time, immigration, and political oppression.
Their distinctive interweaving of Afro-Cuban flavors with Latin jazz automatically evokes la madre patria. It summons the spirit of Cuba onto the stage through syncopated trumpet riffs, punctuated percussion solos, and conversational-style vocal performances. The rhythm sways like palm trees on tropical shores and conjures impressions of Cuba’s Golden Age — a long-lost but not forgotten era.
The orchestra played a set for half an hour, opening with a rendition of “El Carretero,” complete with improvised dance numbers during songs.
And then…Omara graced the stage.
At the tender age of 80, she is sexier, spunkier, and spicier than ever. Charisma seemed to emanate from her modest and slightly arthritic stature. You could sense the audience clapping their hands a little harder, swinging their hips a little wider, and letting loose a little more, taking their cues from Omara. She closed her set with a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” endearingly sung in her Cuban-English accent.
La Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is a relatively small troupe in the jazz world, and they seemed almost dwarfed by the colossal Hollywood Bowl, but they are a seismic force to be reckoned with once the music starts.
As if hearing them play as the headlining act at the Bowl wasn’t enough excitement, they were preceded by none other than Arturo Sandoval and the LA Philharmonic Big Band itself! Making a fashionable entrance by way of revolving stage, his big band performed crowd favorites including “Besame Mucho,” “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” and “Mambo.” The cast of characters on stage was anything but mundane. Surprise guests included Natalie Cole, with whom Arturo shared a heartfelt moment in which he professed his undying adulation for her father; Nicolas Reyes, the lead vocalist from the Gipsy Kings; and Andy Garcia, who apparently is a phenomenal bongo player and percussionist! Sandoval knew what we wanted before we even knew what we wanted, and he served it to us on a revolving platter.
In all, it was an unforgettable night and the perfect kickoff to my vacation next week. I’m headed south of the border and will be doing so with more music in my heart.