In Buena Vista Social Club, there's a scene in which Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo have just finished singing the achingly tender duet "Silencio." As the audience claps, a tear wells up in Portuondo's eye. Ferrer takes a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs away the drop. Tears are expected to flow in Cuban song just as they are expected to flow down a grieving face in real life. That's the way things are. And Cuban music tells of things the way they are, the good and the bad.
Unlike the other son singers in the Buena Vista Social Club, Portuondo has roots in the filin movement of the late 1940s and 1950s. These were small combos fronted by singers, usually female. Filin combos were very much influenced by the American jazz song stylists of the day, such as Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme. Portuondo was a fixture with the Cuarteto Las D'Aida for 15 years, performing in Havana's Tropicana cabaret. When her solo album on Nonesuch was released in May, some critics dismissed it as Cuban lounge music. Hey, that's what Portuondo is all about.
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On boleros like "He Perdido Contigo" Portuondo sings with sensitivity, an interpretive imagination and an unfailing sense of musical line. These boleros were her strongest suit in the old days. Many years later, at age 69, Portuondo doesn't sound as if she's lost any of her breath control or timbral shading.