A Moving Set From Buena Vista’s Diva

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Producer Ry Cooder said recently that when it comes to the singers of the Buena Vista Social Club, he preferred collaborating with Ibrahim Ferrer over Omara Portuondo. Ferrer is always open to suggestions, according to Cooder, but Portuondo has no qualms about saying which songs she will (and will not) perform.

At UCLA’s Royce Hall on Friday, Portuondo showed clearly that she is used to being a diva. The irrepressible personality and defiant command with which the 69-year-old Cuban singer captivated the capacity audience was a sight to behold.

Unlike most of the Buena Vista participants, Portuondo is not new to fame. In the ‘50s, she won worldwide acclaim as a member of the superb vocal ensemble Cuarteto D’Aida. In 1967, she launched a solo career specializing in jazz-flavored balladry.


Boleros are at the heart of Portuondo’s touching new solo album, “Buena Vista Social Club Presents . . . Omara Portuondo,” and it was the beloved Latin song format that delivered the most emotional moments Friday.

“To remember is to live again,” the singer said before launching into a smoldering version of the Maria Teresa Vera classic “Veinte Anos.” Portuondo’s voice distills the right combination of wistful remembrance and bitter regret that makes a good bolero a proposition of devastating intensity.

Led by trombonist Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos, her 13-piece big band enveloped the singer’s powerful voice in a cushion of velvety brass and subtle waves of percussion. Boasting the raucous tresero Papi Oviedo in its lineup, the ensemble re-created most of the album’s songs to perfection.

Portuondo also had a few surprises in store. She offered a sensuous “Quizas, Quizas” from Ruben Gonzalez’s recently released album. And in remembrance of the legendary Tito Gomez and the Riverside Orchestra, she brought the house down with a pumped-up version of “Vereda Tropical,” yet another classic of melancholy longing.