Omara Portuondo: Bringing new Cuban vistas to Disney Hall — at 85

Omara Portuondo, with Robert Fonseca (Photo by Gabrielle S. Montoya)
Omara Portuondo, with Roberto Fonseca (Photo by Gabrielle S. Montoya)

Omara Portuondo likes to remind Roberto Fonseca that he is living a dream come true. Fonseca doesn’t need much reminding. It’s a dream that goes back to when Fonseca was a schoolboy in Havana in the ’80s, and Portuondo was even then one of the true giants of Cuban music, who made her name as a prized singer in the years before the revolution.

“It was a long time ago,” Fonseca said in a recent phone conversation, quickly adding, “Don’t say I said that to her!”

He went to a club where she was singing, was completely transfixed and approached her after her set.

“I came to her and said, ‘I have a dream that one day I will play for you,’” he said. “I was a child! Sometimes now she reminds me that, that the dream came true.”

These days they’re sharing the dream — though back then neither of them could have imagined where that would take them, such as last summer being on stage at the Hollywood Bowl on the “Adios” tour of the Buena Vista Social Club, Portuondo one of the veteran stars of Cuban music at the heart of that endeavor that since first emerging in the mid-’90s had taken the classic sounds and performers of pre-revolution Havana to global acclaim. And not long after that the tour made a side trip to the White House, something unthinkable in the decades of chilly-at-best relations between Cuba and the US. (Watch the video of that performance here.)

||| Live: From the Buena Vista Social Club: Omara Portuondo “85” Tour, with special guests Roberto Fonseca, Anat Cohen and Regina Carter, 8 p.m. Wednesday at Disney Hall. Info.

“Just the fact that of being able to perform our Cuban classics at the White House last year means a lot!” Portuondo said in an email interview via a translator. “We were welcomed by the whole team, President Obama and Vice President Biden. This will always be in my heart and memory, and I think it will be in the memory of a lot of Americans and Cubans.”

Pianist Fonseca was there for both events as one of the younger Cuban artists in the BVSC band bringing a new vitality to the music. Not that Portuondo lacked any vitality. A spry 84 at the time, in her parts of the show she impressed not only with the passion of her singing, but also with some rather lively dance moves to the mambo, rhumba and tango-Afro rhythms.

And now, on Wednesday, the two will be at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on a tour celebrating Portuondo’s legacy — and vitality — appropriately titled “85.” If the BV tour was “Adios” to that phase, this is a new “Hola.” While it will spotlight the legacy of Portuondo’s career, reaching back to the ’50s repertoire, it also looks to new vistas via the contributions of Fonseca and fellow younger generation Cuban musicians: drummer Ramses Rodriguez, percussionist Andres Coayo and bassist Yandy Martinez. And taking it even further into some new possibilities is the involvement on the tour of two special non-Cuban guest performers, Regina Carter and Anat Cohen.

Violinist Carter was born in Detroit and has in the last 20 years or so been one of the most distinctive presences in jazz, reaching far beyond into music classical (she did an album performing Paganini piece on his own violin), African (her 2010 “Reverse Thread” album used funds from a MacArthur “genius” grant to explore African connections) and the African-American music of the south where her father was raised (2014’s “Southern Comfort”).  Clarinet and sax player Cohen, born in Tel Aviv but based now in New York, has brought her considerable talents and vision to music from across the full jazz spectrum, much of it of Latin-American and Afro-Caribbean origins.

Both have brought wide-reaching sensibilities and forceful personalities to the jazz world in recent times, but this musical setting offers something a little different for them.

And that is the point.

Music is universal, and both of them bring special knowledge and talent to our music. It will be a very intense and interesting musical meeting.

“Both of them are very talented musicians,” Portuondo said. “And I always enjoy sharing the stage with women. We will work on musical communication. Music is universal, and both of them bring special knowledge and talent to our music. It will be a very intense and interesting musical meeting. We will perform Cuban classics, each  guest will also perform songs from her own repertoire.”

Fonseca’s role is something of musical wrangler to bring this all together. It’s a role he relishes.

“It’s something really important,” he said. “Those are really great musicians. Omara is amazing. Regina and Anat are amazing. But at the same time the musicians we are bringing from Cuba, they are great, and now the point is trying to make a concert with a good ambience, trying to build a nice, warm, lovely, powerful concert where everybody can show their skills but at the same time the important thing is the music. We don’t need to show off our skills. People know us.”

As for the cultural differences, well that’s exactly the kind of challenge Fonseca loves best. His own music has been all about that. His new album is titled “ABUC” — that’s Cuba backwards, or seen in a mirror, reexamining the sounds of classic Cuban music from the 1950s and ’60s. It’s at once traditional and not.

“We are trying to make a history of Cuban music, not the way of playing it but the way of the sound,” he said. “Mambo-Afro — you remember, it was crossed. We did it on purpose, sounded like the ’50s an ’60s records. That was intentional. We wanted to get that sound, wanted to talk about the history of the country, the music.”

And in other projects he’s followed those connections explicitly, notably in concert and on the live album “At Home,” in collaboration with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. The lively, vibrant tracks on the 2015 album move in both directions of the Afro-Cuban ties, with some new ideas spun into the mix as well.

That same philosophy is at the core of the “85” performances. The trick it to find both the essential core and something new in even the most familiar material, including such much-performed songs as “Siboney” (a Cuban standard written by Ernesto Lecouna in 1929 and recorded by everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Connie Francis) and “Besame Mucho” (from 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velazquez, but long a pan-Latin American standard, and beyond — even the Beatles did it in the early years).

“‘Siboney’ is a beautiful piece,” he said. “But we don’t want to do it like everybody else. It’s a special concert, with guests. We don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, she has a gig.’ Make it special. And if you’re playing ‘Besame Mucho,’ played by a lot of people, it’s good to try your best to play in a different way — but all the way respecting the meaning of the words and ambience.”

As for that ambience, you can bet it will get Portuondo moving her feet.

“We have been working on the repertoire, and I’m sure some dancing will be part of the show,” the singer said.

“It’s not possible to stop her,” Fonseca added in his interview.

She’s not planning on being alone in that regard, though.

“I hope I won’t be the only one dancing,” she said.

She means you. Sharing the dream.