Like many Americans, I unfortunately didn’t discover Omara Portuondo until the late ‘90s when she emerged as the only female singer on the highly successful Buena Vista Social Club, at which point her musical career had been going approximately 50 years in her native Cuba. She has a lovely expressive voice and even though my understanding of Español is limited, the emotions of the stories she sings about on Gracias and her reflections in the liner notes transcend my linguistic limitations.
“Yo vi” reminds Portuondo “of the Caribbean and its islands” and it’s easy to hear why. The musical arrangement is as comforting as a warm night’s breeze off the ocean, particularly the eleven-piece string section waxing and waning throughout like the moonlight.
“Adiós felicidad” is about “a love I once had but which never actually came to pass. A love that could never be.” Even without knowing the title means “goodbye happiness,” the listener can hear the sadness and resignation in her voice, especially when she repeats the words. The music parallels the emotions as Roberto Fonseca’s lone piano opens the song. On the bridge Avishai Cohen’s double bass comes to the forefront with a restrained freneticism
“O que será (À flor da terra)” finds Portuondo trading vocals with Chico Buarque on a song that captures her life-long captivation with Brazil. The rhythm is upbeat and sure to fill the dance floor. On “Vuela pena” she starts softly, backed by just the piano. As the song progresses, her vocals, augmented by the other instruments, swell in intensity like she is emerging from turmoil and has grown stronger for surviving. The song repeats the pattern.
“Amame como soy” is a tribute to Elena Burke, her fellow singer in Cuarteto D'Aida. Pablo Milanés, who wrote the song, joins in the vocal. It’s got a great beat. She sings another Milanés song, “Tu mi desengaño.” It has a very lush sound from the 12-person string section backing her.
The title track, sung with Jorge Drexler, is a thank you to all the musicians she has worked with, it’s so simple and pleasing reflecting the simple joy and gratitude that common phrase can convey. On “Lo que me queda por vivir” the 78-year-old sings about “what life still has to give [her], and…it will be a smile.” It’s a great, positive outlook no matter how many days lie ahead. The large string section returns to this arrangement, giving the song weight and grandeur.
Children have had a great impact on Portuondo’s life. “Cuento para un niño” “is dedicated to their innocence and to the difficult task entailed by becoming an adult.” By singing over an acoustic guitar for the majority of it, the music emulates a child-like simplicity. “Cachita” opens with a young girl singing, her granddaughter Rossio Jimenez. Abuela Omara joins in the next verse. They sing together on the chorus backed only by a clave. There is something so sweet and natural about the two singing together, like they might do alone in a garden. “Nuestro gran amor,” written by her son Ariel Jiminéz, “portrays the profound love” that only a mother can feel for her son.
“Drume negrita” is a lullaby she used to sing to her son and granddaughter. Only backed by bass, percussion, and background vocals, it creates a dreamy state the listener can to drift off to as it closes the album.
Omara Portuondo’s Gracias is a beautiful album that reveals a number of facets of her life. The words may sound foreign, but the music and stories are universal.