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Music Review: Omara Portuondo – Lagrimas Negras: Canciones y Boleros

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Anyone who watched the documentary or listened to the CD of The Buena Vista Social Club will have noticed a significant absence of women among the featured performers. One who was in attendance, and stood out because of it, was Omara Portuondo. Like the rest of the participants in these recordings Ms. Portuondo was a veteran of Havana's night club scene, and had sung with all the famous bands and orchestras throughout the years.

She was brought out to share the spotlight for a duet with Ibrahim Ferrer and was overshadowed by the men and relegated to a supporting role for most of the proceedings. Yet, unlike most of the men, her career had continued unabated from when she started as a young woman in the 1940s. Initially she had started as a dancer, but her real love was singing.  When she won a radio song contest, she was able to parlay it into her first professional job.

Still in spite of her popularity throughout the Latin Americas, including Mexico, she has remained a relative unknown to Anglo audiences in North America, aside from her appearances with the Buena Vista Social Club. Part of that has to be laid at the feet of the American embargo that prevents any interaction between the United States and Cuba, but part of it is the gulf that has always separated Spanish performers from English audiences. While in some metropolitan centres, like New York City, there is bound to be an audience for the other language's music, you're not going to see Omara's music walking off the shelves in Omaha.
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Fortunately for those who want to hear the music of Omara Portuondo, companies like MVD Audio are distributing recordings that were originally released some time ago. Lagrimas Negras: Canciones y Boleros (The Black Tears: Songs and Dances) was originally released in 2005, and is made up of two discs of her music. Disc one is from recordings she did in the late 90s with other alumni of the Buena Vista Social Club recording sessions, while disc two is a collection of recordings with various bands and orchestras that she made between 1967 and 1985. While the title of the recording suggest that there would be an even mix between the Boleros and Canciones, in actual fact all of disc one is composed of the dance oriented tunes, while disc two is an even split between the two.

The differences between the two types of music are significant enough to make the fact that the boleros outnumber the canciones a contributing factor in the listener's enjoyment depending on which type of song they enjoy more. My tastes run more towards the less orchestrated and more singer oriented canciones, so I was somewhat disappointed by the predominance of the boleros. That's not to say there is anything particularly wrong with the boleros, or the way they are performed, it's just they sound far too much like the slickly orchestrated numbers that I associate with Hollywood versions of Latin night club music from a 1940s movie.

So while the music is well played, and the singing is highly polished, the final result is something a little too slick for my tastes. It's like they have concentrated on making them as palatable as possible for an Anglo audience and removed any of the rough edges that would have it given it any genuine emotional punch. While it's not as noticeable when you listen to the first disc, as there's nothing to compare them to, I still felt as though there was something lacking in their delivery.

It was only when Omara Portunondo lets loose on some of the canciones on the second side that I was able to understand what it was that I had felt was missing from the material on the first disc. Instead of the slick and polished arrangements, and smooth as silk vocals that marked the boleros, the canciones are musically simpler and vocally rougher. This gives them a much stronger emotional impact, and to my ear, makes them more enjoyable to listen to.

Listening to the two different styles of music on this collection of music, you would almost think there are two different vocalists performing. On the boleros Omara sounds as slick and polished as any Las Vegas night club singer. Her phrasing is perfect and she hits every note yet there is no emotional commitment in her voice. Not being able to speak Spanish I don't understand what she is singing about, but from the tone of her voice it might as well be about the weather as anything else.

She's a completely different singer on the canciones, as she allows the passion of the music to infuse her voice. On these songs you at least have some indication of what she's feeling, even if you don't understand the lyrics that she's singing. Even better is the fact that there is passion in her voice as she allows herself to be swept up by the music and the intent of the song. I don't know why there's the difference between the two types of music, but I do know which of them I prefer, and which version of Omara Portunondo I like best.

There is no denying the talent of any of the people involved with the project, or the quality of the production. Omara Portunondo herself is a wonderful vocalist with an impressive range and the potential to have a highly expressive voice. It's unfortunate that the majority of the songs on Lagrimas Negras: Canciones y Bloeros don't give her the opportunity to show off her voice to its finest.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.