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A formidable Cuban songbird

Septuagenarian Omara Portuondo wows with her potent, emotional voice

October 26, 2009|Reed Johnson

Halloween still is a few days off, but for the Cuban chanteuse Omara Portuondo, Friday night's concert at UCLA's Royce Hall was an occasion for marking an early Thanksgiving.

Hip-swiveling her way onstage as if she were hoofing it up at Havana's Tropicana cabaret, circa 1945, Portuondo was visibly eager to share the blessings of a long and well-lived life in music. At nearly 79, she told her audience, she has abundant cause for gratitude.

Indeed she does.

Portuondo's contralto still registers as a formidably potent and emotionally limber instrument, telegraphing ruefulness or ecstasy, parental tenderness or swooning romantic fatalism. Her persistent potency is evident on her 2008 release "Gracias," on which she seamlessly blends her voice in collaboration with Chico Buarque, Pablo Milanes and Jorge Drexler. (The disc, much of which Portuondo performed Friday, recently scored a Latin Grammy nomination in the category of best contemporary tropical album.)

On her current tour, she's surrounded by a virtuoso quintet led by guitarist-musical director Swami Jr., who has contrived a number of daringly robust, jazz-centered arrangements, more emphatic than those on "Gracias." The warm appreciation flowing between Portuondo and her much younger musicians mirrors the singer's affection for the songwriters and other artists she honored during her program, including Ernesto Lecuona, Cuba's great fusionist of classical and popular styles; Juan Formell of the band Los Van Van; and Portuondo's late partner in devastatingly poignant duets, Ibrahim Ferrer, whom she toasted with a lump-in-the-throat-inducing rendition of "Dos Gardenias."

Most thankfully of all, following a six-year post-Sept. 11 cultural freeze between her native Cuba and the United States, the sometime Buena Vista Social Club member finally has been granted a visa to perform stateside.

It's a relief to know that septuagenarian Caribbean musicians apparently no longer pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. They might, however, pose a challenge to the U.S. pop-music industry by reminding listeners how much richer a musical culture can be when it maintains at least a minimal sense of connection to its own past.

Quick-changing moods of joyful celebration and disillusioned regretfulness colored Portuondo's excellent, 90-minute set. "Adios Felicidad" she sang in a bittersweet adieu to happiness that fully justified her epithet as the "Cuban Edith Piaf." Later, hunched in a chair, she crooned a traditional lullaby as if singing to a newborn.

Although she was never overpowered by her band mates, Portuondo's clear, classy phrasing shone brightest when she was accompanied by nothing more than some gestural brushwork, a gentle bass line or Swami Jr.'s elegant acoustic guitar, for an encore of "Besame Mucho."

At other moments, the band, propelled by percussionist Andres Coyao, shifted into polyrhythmic full-throttle on "Amame Como Soy" and with a strutting bossa nova-tinted version of Buarque's oft-covered classic "O Que Sera."

Even if she hadn't climaxed the evening by pressing "Besame Mucho" and that other irresistible sentimental hot button "Guantanamera," Portuondo already would've earned the grateful applause that the audience showered on this wise and vital artist.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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