Portuondo heats up Spaulding

by Katherine Carolan | 5/2/02 5:00am

This year at Dartmouth there have been several Latin jazz artists who made their way through the Hop, including Jimmy Bosch and Bobby Sanabria.

However, no performance has matched the electricity and excitement that was felt when Omara Portuondo performed in Spaulding Auditorium on Tuesday night. She stepped onto the stage and was immediately welcomed by screaming, whistling and applause.

Portuondo, a famous singer in Cuba, was only recently introduced to the international scene with her appearance on the album "Buena Vista Social Club" released in 1996. Director Ry Cooder approached a number of forgotten Cuban musical greats and invited them to collaborate on the album that went on to win a Grammy and become an international best seller. The musicians never recorded the album with the intentions of forming a band, but due to the album's overwhelming popularity, they decided to perform two concerts of material from the album -- one at Carnegie Hall and one in Amsterdam.

Omara Portuondo is most renowned for her boleros and is regarded as possibly the best female bolero singer in Cuba. She also sings son, guaracha and jazz. Tuesday night's performance was part of the last leg of her solo tour in the United States and also marked her first appearance at Dartmouth College.

Everything from the lighting to the minute details had been rehearsed carefully, yet there was enough room for improvisation so that the audience felt that the show was unique and catered to them.

After the opening piece, Portuondo spoke to the audience, predominantly in Spanish, telling everyone that she planned to do some cha-cha and mambo numbers, as well as some of her signature bolero pieces. She then added some shout-outs to audience members hailing from various Latin American countries, Cuba and the United States.

The female singer continued with a vibrant second piece, "Ella y Yo" at which point people may have noticed the trumpet player who appeared to be doubling as the dance choreographer for all the brass musicians in the back row. He set the stage for what was to become a humorous and effervescent show. The middle of the piece featured a flute interlude -- characteristic of Cuban music -- played by one of the saxophonists.

After "Ella y Yo," the dancing trumpeter prompted the audience to join him in chanting "la ms sexy" (the sexiest woman) to Portuondo, at which point she ventured into a little history about the next song she was to sing -- "Veinte Aos." The song had a powerful impact on the Spaulding audience, as one person walked up to the stage and gave Portuondo two gardenias. She received them graciously, announced that she accepted the gardenias on behalf of everyone there at the show and pinned them onto her dress.

Just when it seemed that the show could not become any more energized, the guitarist ended his solo by playing his guitar behind his head while dancing and shaking with his back to the audience.

The show began to wind down with a bolero written by George Gershwin and a cha-cha piece, which unexpectedly featured a Dartmouth student who jumped up on stage after being motioned to by Portuondo and danced with her. The last song included a duel of sorts between the guitarist and Portuondo as he challenged her to sing the notes and chords he was playing on the guitar. Eventually she was forced to surrender, but not without a good fight.

At the end of the performance each instrumentalist had a shot to play a few bars themselves as they were introduced and thanked by Portuondo. She did a two-song encore, including a performance of "Dos Gardenias" which she sang holding the gardenias given to her earlier in the performance.

Omara Portuondo was sent off by ecstatic applause, a standing ovation (one of many throughout the concert), lots of screaming and people bolting down the aisles to trying to get her autograph.