October 30, 2009 / 11:27 PM / 10 years ago

Cuban singer Portuondo back in U.S. with "Gracias"

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Omara Portuondo’s Latin Grammy Award-nominated “Gracias” was released in the United States in 2008, but she wasn’t able to tour stateside in support of the album until now.

Cuban diva Omara Portuondo, surviving star of the Buena Vista Social Club, talks to the media before taking part in the filming of a video in Old Havana October 10, 2006. PREUTERS/Jorge Silva

Like other Cuban singers, Portuondo, best known as one of the stars of the “Buena Vista Social Club” album, had been barred from performing in the States since 2003, when the administration of President George W. Bush tightened visa regulations.

Her recent shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco mark the start of what is expected to be a new wave of performances in the United States by Cuban artists. The 79-year-old singer recently spoke with Billboard about “Gracias” (released by Producciones Montuno) and her tour.

Billboard: Was it upsetting for you to be kept out of the United States?

Omara Portuondo: Yes. The first time I came here to perform was in 1951, and I came many times after that. In Cuba, I also met so many American artists, like Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Kenton. I used to sing “Stormy Weather,” and later I met Lena Horne. For musical reasons that don’t hurt anyone and only make people happy, I wanted to come here again.

Billboard: Is “Gracias” a retrospective of your career?

Portuondo: I tried to include styles that people who only know me from “Buena Vista Social Club” might not know I sing and that are part of our Cuban culture: filin, African rhythms, songs by Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. Jorge Drexler wrote the song “Gracias.”

Billboard: Is there a song on the album that’s particularly special for you?

Portuondo: I recorded a Cuban lullaby, “Drume Negrita.” My father sang it to me when I was a baby, and I sang it to my children and granddaughter.

Billboard: You’re best known in Cuba as a member of the filin movement.

Portuondo: It was started by a group of young people in Havana who were influenced by the traditional Cuban trova (folk) and also Tommy Dorsey and other big bands who would play in Havana. When we heard a good song we’d say, “Hey, that song has feeling,” and that’s how the movement got its name.

Billboard: Most of the musicians who recorded “Buena Vista Social Club” have passed away in recent years. Do you worry about the legacy of Cuban music?

Portuondo: No, young people in Cuba are interested in what came before them, like we were. Today, the most popular music is reggaeton, but the young artists are mixing it with Cuban rhythms from the past.

Billboard: What’s ahead for you?

Portuondo: I think I still have a lot left to do. If an interesting project comes up and they invite me, I’ll do it. Music gives you peace, it gives you happiness. And through music, you can remember all of the interesting things that happened to you in your own life.

Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters

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