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Omara Portuondo, Flor de Amor (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
by: Steve Horowitz

One doesn't have to know Spanish to understand the love and passion Cuban chanteuse Omara Portuondo expresses in her music, any more than one needs to know French to appreciate the desires of Edith Piaf, or English to recognize the soul of Aretha Franklin. Portuondo is a world class diva with an abundance of talent whose name should be recognized around the globe, but because she lives in Cuba and therefore has been largely unable to tour, she is not well-known outside of her native country.

Portuondo's story reads like the plot to a Hollywood B-movie. She began her career as a singer and dancer in the hot nightclubs of Havana in the forties. In the fifties, she helped found the popular vocal group Cuarteto d'Aida, sang with the acclaimed Orquestra Aragon, and had a successful solo career. She frequently toured places like Miami where Cuban music was very popular. After Cold War events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs incursion, travel restrictions prevented Portuondo from performing outside of her homeland, and she was unwilling to immigrate to the United States. She continued to perform with the Orquestra Aragon during the seventies, but by the nineties had mostly stopped singing professionally. Then she was discovered by Ry Cooder when he went to Cuba to record The Buena Vista Social Club and due to the success of the album and documentary film, she again became an international celebrity. Flor de Amor is her second new disc since being rediscovered.

I lack the knowledge of Latin and Afro-Cuban music to intelligently discuss the different genres presented on the album, but Portuondo performs in a variety of styles and sings in both Spanish and Portuguese. She's ably backed by a number of different acoustic and electric guitar players, including Papi Oviedo on tres (a traditional Cuban guitar), Papi Oviedo on 12-string, and Brazilian Swami Jr. on seven-string, in addition to rhythm masters Miguel Diaz and Ramses Gonzalez on congas and drums. The sound of flutes, horns, and a clarinet often join in the mix. The overall effect can be described as romantic, elegant and swinging.

Musical highlights include the upbeat "Alma de Roca" with the call and response of Portuondo and a second line horn section who dig an infectious groove so deep that you never want it to stop, the lilting "Hermosa Habana" that stoically drips with emotion, and the title song that moves almost to a martial beat as Portuondo's vocals glide over the stringed instrumentation. One doesn't need a translator to guess that "Flor de Amor" must mean "Flowers of Love." The Cuban singer's precise phrasing and the way she seems to roll the words in her mouth before fully annunciating suggests the depth of her feelings.

Perhaps the best way to discuss the album is metaphorically. Imagine spending a tropical night dancing with the one you desire at an outdoor nightclub on the beach under a Havana moon. The sound of the sea and the smell of her perfume add to your intoxication. Waves of emotions pass over you as you wonder if she wants you, as you anticipate what happens after the dancing ends, as you imagine what your life together could be like. This is the kind of mood Flor de Amor creates, from the throbbing opening number "Tabu" to the tender closing piece, specially written for her by the Brazilian musician Carlinhos Brown, "Casa Calor." The album continually teases and pleases the listener.