Omara was born in Havana in October 1930. Her mother came from a rich Spanish family and was expected to marry into another society family. Instead she ran off with the man she loved, a tall, handsome baseball player from the Cuban national team. Moreover he was black and in those days mixed race marriages were still frowned upon in Cuba. "My mother always hid the fact that she had married a black man. If they bumped into each other in the street they had to ignore each other. But at home they recreated what society denied them - a haven of peace and harmony. They loved each other very much," Omara recalls. They had three daughters and as in any Cuban household there was music. There wasn¹t a gramophone - they didn¹t have the money. But there were the voices of Omara¹s parents, singing in the kitchen and as they went about their daily lives. She remembers their favorites included songs by Ernesto Grenet and Sindo Garay's La Bayamesa. They were her first informal singing lessons and the songs remain in her repertoire to this day. When her older sister Haydee became a dancer at the famous cabaret Tropicana, Omara soon followed her - by accident. One day in 1945, the ballet troupe found itself short when a dancer dropped out two days before an important premiere. Omara had watched her sister rehearse so often that she knew all the steps and was asked to stand in. "It was a very chic cabaret but I said it was out of the question," Omara recalls. "I was very shy and I was ashamed to show my legs." Her mother told her that she couldn't let them down and thus began a career as a dancer, forming a famous partnership with the dancer Rolando Espinosa. Today she still performs at the Tropicana as one of its star singers.
On weekends Omara and Haydee would sing American jazz standards with a bunch of friends which included Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Jose Antonio Mendez and the blind pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, who can still be heard playing around Havana¹s nightclubs. They became known as Loquibambla Swing and the style they played - a Cubanised version of the bossa nova with American jazz influences - became known as "feeling" or "filin" as it was often written in Spanish. On their radio debut Omara was announced as "Miss Omara Brown, the fiancé of filin." The Anglicized name was soon forgotten, but she is still known by many Cubans as "la novia del filin".
By 1952 Omara and Haydee had formed a female vocal quartet with Elena Bourke and Moraima Secada, led by the pianist Aida Diestro. They were to become one of the most important groups in Cuban musical history and Omara was to remain with the Cuarteto Las D'Aida for 15 years, although the original line-up only ever made a single album for RCA Victor in 1957. "We toured America and Aida¹s vocal arrangements were very innovative. We were acclaimed everywhere and when Nat King Cole played the Tropicana we sang on stage with him," Omara recalls. Her debut solo album, Magia Negra, appeared in 1959. It was an adventurous affair straddling Cuban music and American jazz, and included versions of That Old Black Magic and Duke Ellington's Caravan.
Yet she remained with the group and two years later was with Las D'Aida singing in a Miami hotel when the Cuban missile crisis caused the rupture in relations with America and began Cuba's long period of isolation. Omara immediately returned home while her sister Haydee stayed in America. She continued with a revamped Las D'Aida until 1967 when she left to pursue her solo career. "So many singers had gone into exile that there was a gap to be filled," she says. Representing Cuba at the Sopot Festival in Poland - a kind of socialist version of the Eurovision Song Contest - she sang Como un Milagro.It was written by Juanito Marquez , with whom she also made the album Esta es Omara Portuondo. Eventually Marquez also went into exile in Miami and a quarter of a century later was the man Gloria Estefan turned to when she needed some traditional Cuban-style arrangements for her 1993 Spanish-language album Mi Tierra.
The early years after the revolution were difficult ones in Cuba¹s history, cut-off from the west as Castro pursued his socialist vision. In 1967 Omara remembers almost the entire Cuban people being conscripted in an attempt to break the sugar cane harvest record. "People from the cities were sent to cut cane in the fields and as artists we were sent into the fields to sing and entertain them while they worked," she recalls.
The Seventies found her singing with the top charanga outfit Orquesta Aragon and she traveled widely, often to other Communist countries, although she also sang in France and Japan. Many of her recordings from the era lack sympathetic production but among her best was an album she recorded with Adalberto Alvarez in 1984 and two albums, Palabras and Desafios for the Spanish label Nubenegra in the early Nineties. It finally placed her expressive voice center stage where it belongs.
Today Omara lives in a high-rise apartment just off the Malecon in Havana with magnificent views over the sea. She remains a flamboyant fixture on the music scene, singing regularly at the Tropicana, the Delirio Habanen and the Cafe Cantante - one of the world¹s great divas who is only now emerging from Cuba¹s long isolation to achieve the international acclaim she so richly deserves.