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MUSIC REVIEW

Buena Vista star Omara Portuondo is 85. But you wouldn’t know it from her two-hour-long Cambridge concert.

Cuban singer and dancer Omara Portuondo in an undated file photo.
Cuban singer and dancer Omara Portuondo in an undated file photo.(Carlos Pericas)

CAMBRIDGE — Omara Portuondo will turn 86 later this month, but you might not have guessed it from the two-plus-hour performance she put on Wednesday at Sanders Theatre. Her still-strong voice only increased in power as the evening progressed. This seasoned performer paced herself and her set list brilliantly, aided by featured guests Anat Cohen and Regina Carter.

Fittingly for a World Music/CRASHarts production, Carter and Cohen hail respectively from Detroit and Tel Aviv. Portuondo, the lone surviving vocalist from the Buena Vista Social Club lineup made famous by Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders in the late ’90s, is from Havana, along with her band of pianist Roberto Fonseca, bassist Yandy Martinez, drummer Ramses Rodriguez, and percussionist Andres Coayo.

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The music they made together had universal appeal. It began with Portuondo calling comic attention to her age, hiking her dress above her ankle to reveal the white socks she was wearing with her sandals. She took a seat on a stool as she and her band launched into the lively “Lagrimas Negras,” but rose to her feet a few beats in and urged the audience to stand up and dance with her.

She resumed her seat for the slower “Adios Felicidad,” and spoke a few words of English between songs as the audience settled back down from the fiery opener. “I was cold outside,” she announced, ostentatiously removing those socks. “But now I’m hot.”

Cohen joined Portuondo and the band for two songs, soloing impressively and blowing clarinet fills on both, and looking on in amusement as Portuondo gently rocked her microphone in her cradled arms while singing the first of them, the lullaby “Drume Negrita.”

An instrumental interlude gave Portuondo a breather. Cohen and violinist Carter pushed each other to virtuosic heights swapping bars on “Triste Algeria,” then Fonseca dazzled with piano pyrotechnics backed by Martinez and Rodriguez on “San Miguel.”

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Carter got her two tunes to shine beside the headliner next, and when Portuondo didn’t get the audience reaction she wanted on “Sitiera,” she shifted gears and launched a singalong on “Guantanamera,” which she concluded by sustaining a note that singers half her age would have trouble matching. The ballad “Duele” followed, arguably the brightest highlight in a night full of them.

Everyone save Fonseca soloed on “La Ultima Noche.” His solo turn was saved for the set closer, “Besame Mucho,” and was as satisfyingly lyrical as his earlier solo had been flashy. Portuondo turned the bolero into a raucous singalong, and departed to a well-earned ovation.


Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.