At this point in her career, Omara Portunondo can do whatever she wants. The legendary Buena Vista Social Club singer has roots in Afro-Cuban music as deep as pretty much anyone ever has. Being Cuban, she hasn’t had the chance to spend as much time playing in this country as other artists of similar stature from elsewhere around the globe. That’s downright tragic, especially since her current tour is billed as a farewell.
But she doesn’t sing like she’s on her way out. Sure, she’s in her eighties now and there’s more flint in her voice than there was ten years or so ago. And she gets an escort onstage, sits when she sings and takes a break midway through the show. But she still has power in the lows and brightness in the highs.
Portuondo distinguished herself as one of the most elegant singers to come out of latin music, and salsa in particular, a long time ago. Her delivery is as articulate and nuanced as ever: even if Spanish is not your first language, she’s very easy to understand. If you manage to catch her on this “Ultimo Beso” tour,, there will be people in the crowd singing along: if you don’t know the words, just wait for the chorus, you’ll get it.
If Friday night’s show at a swanky, semi-new sub-basement boite in the Times Square area is the blueprint, expect pianist Roberto Fonseca to open the show and then lead the band – Andres Coayo on percussion, Ruly Herrera on drums and Yandy Martinez on bass- through what could be a long, very eclectic ,mostly instrumental interlude midway through. These guys are equally skilled at guajira, rhumba, cha-cha and boleros, and like their leader can shift effortlessly between those styles.
Although she stays in her seat for most of the set, Portuondo may practically do the limbo from her chair when she’s not setting off singalongs with the audience. Beyond what the band are playing, the musical backdrop may include synthy orchestration and samples emanating from a loop pedal or a sequencer in Fonseca’s collection of keyboards. Martinez will switch between electric and acoustic bass and really dig in on the lows when he bows. Coayo will be as subtle as the singer, since most of the material is on the slow and melancholy side, as he switches from bongos to chekere, but he’ll really energize the crowd and draw them into a fiery timbale solo.
Portuondo will engage the crowd more if she senses that most of them know the material. Friday evening, the bttersweet Adios Felicidad was a highlight: holler for it if the band doesn’t play it early on. They don’t make singers like Portuondo anymore: this is a fleeting chance to be glad that the two of you are alive at the same time when she can sing your disappointments away.