Omara’s first encounter with music was at a very early age. Just as in any other Cuban home, the future singer and her siblings grew up with the songs which her parents, for lack of a gramophone, sang to them. Those melodies, some of which still form part of her repertoire, were young Omara’s informal introduction to the world of music. However, before taking up singing as a career, a fortuitous event led her to first try her hand at dancing, following in the footsteps of her sister Haydee, who was a member of the dance company of the famous Tropicana cabaret.
One day, in 1945, she began a dancing career that led her to form a legendary duo with Rolando Espinosa and, in 1961, to become a teacher of popular dance at the Escuela de Instructores de Arte. The relationship between Omara and the Tropicana remains intact today and up to 1998 she still performed there from time to time. Omara and her sister Haydee also sang well-known American numbers with a group which included César Portillo de la Luz, José Antonio Méndez and blind pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. They called themselves Los Loquibambla and their style, a Cubanised version of the bossa nova with touches of American jazz, was known as “feeling”. In their radio debut, Omara was introduced as “Miss Omara Brown, the girlfriend of “feeling”, the name by which she is still known by many Cubans today. As the singer herself recalls, Cuban music of that time was influenced by styles from different countries such as Argentina, Brazil and, of course, the USA.
In 1952, Omara and Haydee, together with Elena Burke and Moraima Secada, set up a vocal quartet, directed by pianist Aida Diestro. This group became one of the greatest in the history of Cuban music despite the fact that the original ensemble only recorded one single, in 1957 on the RCA Victor label. Omara stayed with the Quarteto Las d’Aida for 15 years.
“Magia Negra,” Omara’s debut record, was released in 1959. It combined Cuban music with American jazz and included versions of “That Old Black Magic” and “Caravan”, by Duke Ellington. Despite having embarked on this solo project, Omara Portuondo continued as a core member of Las d’Aida. Two years later, she had to cut short a series of concerts at a Miami hotel and return to Cuba due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba and to a long period of isolation for the Caribbean country. Omara stayed with Las d’Aida until 1967, when she decided to pursue a solo career.