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SPOTLIGHT: Omara Portuondo

By Araba A. Appiagyei-Dankah, Contributing Writer

Omara Portuondo is a Cuban music and film superstar whose career has spanned over 60 years. The U.S. leg of her “Gracias” tour, which will make a stop at Sanders Theater on February 26, will mark the first time that a Cuban performer has been granted a visa to perform in the United States since 2003. Born in 1930 to a wealthy Spanish mother and a black, pro-athlete father during a time when mixed-race marriages were forbidden, she blossomed into a gifted singer and dancer, going on to perform with the well-known Buena Vista Social Club and to win a 2009 Latin Grammy for her latest album “Gracias.” In an email to The Harvard Crimson translated from Spanish, Portuondo anticipates her return to the states by answering questions about performing at Harvard, her longstanding career, and the future of Cuban music.

The Harvard Crimson: Do you think your mixed-race background is and has been a large influence in your musical style and performance over the course of your career?

Omara Portuondo: My parents taught me to feel and to be the same as everyone, even if they lived in a period where black and white people could not get married. They didn’t understand the differences between people, and they educated us with these values. Ever since I started music, when I was only a little girl, all the people who I’ve worked with have been from mixed races, cultures, and influences. The Buena Vista Social Club is the best example for that, as well as my own musicians.

THC: You have had a long, extraordinary career lasting for over 60 years. How have you remained devoted to your music for such a long time? How do you stay inspired to perform?

OP: I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the recordings and challenges that arise from recording with different musicians. I love music and I can bring it all over the world through tours. Contact with the audience is always very special and gives me lots of energy; that’s what inspires me and excites me every day.

THC: Do you think that the Gracias Tour will be your last major tour, or do you still have plans to continue touring around the world?

OP: Well, I can’t say that, only nature can say it. In order to [keep] touring I need to be healthy! That’s the most important thing. If health is with me, I still have lots of projects, and I really hope I can continue to tour.

THC: Do you feel honored to be the first Cuban artist in six years granted a visa to perform in the US? Why do you think you were the first Cuban artist allowed back in such a long time?

OP: I feel really honored that we can bring our music again to the United States. Now a lot of Cuban artists will also have the opportunity, and this is the most important thing. Music knows nothing at all about frontiers.

THC: What song is the most special to you to perform for audiences?

OP: I enjoy all the songs from this last album, but it is true that there are two or three songs that cannot be missed: “Dos Gardenias,” “Veinte Años,” and “Besame Mucho.”

THC: For American college students interested in learning more about your music, performances, and legacy, which of your records would you recommend starting with?

OP: Maybe the last one, ˝Gracias.˝ I celebrate 60 years of my career with it, and I wanted to play important music for me. For the occasion, I invited different musicians like Richard Bona, Avishay Coher, and Trilok Gurtu. I would also recommend my first solo album, “Magia Negra”; with this one, young people will know that we used to listen to music from all around the world. On “Magia Negra” we played North American music with Bossa Nova influences. That was what we used to listen to, along with our own Cuban music.

THC: What is special to you about performing in Boston, and, in particular, at Sanders Theater?

OP: It is really special for me; Boston is a very special city. With Buena Vista Social Club, we had the great opportunity to visit a few times, and I really have very nice memories from here. I’m really happy to come back. Sanders Theater is a really nice theater where artists can enjoy playing, and I’m sure that it will be the perfect environment to present my last album “Gracias.” I’m happy, and it is an honor for me.

THC: What are your opinions on the state of Cuban music today? You and many of your colleagues represent, in a way, the old guard of Cuban music. Do you like the new direction that Cuban music is headed?

OP: Cuba is full of different styles and different ways to perform music; it has always been like this. Now it is rap, hip hop, reggaeton... I admire everything that is done with the heart and with quality and feeling. It is true that I belong to another older generation, but “today” belongs to young people, and now is their moment. The best example is the pianist on tour with me, Roberto Fonseca. He loves jazz, [and] he is a virtuous man. We have to help new generations.

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