In 1996, Omara Portuondo began working on an album at Havana’s famous recording studio, Egrem. Upstairs, American musician Ry Cooder laid down tracks for Buena Vista Social Club, a venture with veteran Cuban musicians like Compay Segundo. Portuondo was invited to come back up and sing a duet with him. They sang “Veinte Anos,” a tune Portuondo learned as a baby.

“Without rehearsal, this became a live recording. One take. It’s improbable,” says Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. He had scouted and rediscovered the older musicians for Buena Vista Social Club. But he says Portuondo turned into nonetheless a celeb on the island, and bringing her into the challenge becomes a dream.

Omara Portuondo

“I remember that once, Mr. Ry Cooder told me, ‘Omara is the Cuban Sarah Vaughan.’ And I told him, ‘No, Sarah Vaughan turned into the American Omara Portuondo,'” Gonzalez says.

NPR met up with the legend at a downtown Los Angeles on the day she began her present-day global tour, “The Last Kiss.” Now 88 years old, Portuondo often sings solutions to questions about her long profession.

Portuondo’s first gig for her modern-day global excursion was at LA’s Regent Theater. Even though she became sitting, she had the target market clapping, dancing, and singing alongside.

“Omara is the most important singer of our way of life,” Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, who plays with Portuondo on tour, says. “She can do any Afro-Cuban style, Latin jazz, jazz, boleros, traditional Cuban track, rumba. She’s magical, severe, pure, sturdy. The audience … The public … They are crying, smiling, dancing. All the time, she’s making jokes.”

“Yes, she’s flirting with the target audience the whole time,” says Alicia Adams, international application director for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Adams brought Portuondo to the center’s Cuban Arts Festival over 12 months and recalls seeing the singer height out from underneath the curtain to wave to her fanatics. Adams says that as relations between Cuba and the U.S. have morphed over the decades, Portuondo has continually been a cultural ambassador.

“She spans before and after the revolution,” Adams says. “From earlier, when there was tons more ability to travel back and forth, until later years, after the revolution, when things were not so smooth in terms of that kind of travel.”

Unlike a few different Cuban musicians — such as her sister Haydee and her antique friend, the overdue Celia Cruz — Portuondo no longer to disorder to the U.S. She says she comes and goes from her home in Cuba as she likes, pretty much like her father, Bartolo Portuondo, did. He’d been a black professional infielder for the Cuban League and the Negro Leagues inside the U.S. Portuondo says that he was a tremendous baseball participant and that her mom, who became white, scandalized her higher-magnificence circle of relatives by marrying him.

When she became a touch girl, Portuondo dreamed of being a ballet dancer. But she says in those days, you could only dance ballet if you were white. Instead, she and Haydee danced and sang at Havana’s famous Tropicana. Later, in 1945, the sisters fashioned a quartet with two different girls, Elena Burke and Moraima Secada (the aunt of singer Jon Secada.) The Cuarteto D’Aida danced and sang in nightclubs and on television. The quartet even backed Nat King Cole while he was executed in Havana.

Portuondo sang with the quartet for 15 years before launching a solo career in 1963. Since then, she’s sung with all and sundry, from Pablo Milanes and Chucho Valdes to Los Van Van and reggaetoneros Yomil Y el Dany. She even sang in the 2009 Spanish model of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Portuondo was related to Cuba’s Movimiento filing for years — the sensation motion that celebrates singers who interpret lyrics with amazing emotion.