Portuondo was born in October 1930 in Havana, one of three sisters; her mother came from a wealthy Spanish family, and had created a scandal by running off with and marrying a black professional baseball player. Omara started her career in 1945 as a dancer at Havana's Tropicana Club (following her older sister, Haydee). The two sisters used to sing for family and friends, however, and after a brief time in a band called Loquibambia Swing, in 1952 they got together with two friends (Elena Burke and Moraima Secada) and formed the singing group Cuarteto D'Aida, backed by pianist Aida Diestro. The group had considerable success, touring the United States, performing with Nat King Cole at the Tropicana, and recording an album for RCA Victor.
In 1959 Portuondo recorded a solo album, Magia Negra, involving both jazz and Cuban music. This didn't, however, mark the beginning of a solo career, and although Haydee left the group in 1961 in order to live in the U.S., Omara continued singing with Cuarteto las d'Aida until 1967.
In 1967 Portuondo embarked on a solo career, and in the same year represented Cuba at the Sopot Festival in Poland, singing Juanito Marquez' "Como un Milagro". Alongside her solo work, in the 1970s she sang with charanga band Orquesta Aragon, and toured with them both in the Communist and non-Communist worlds.
In 1974 she recorded, with guitarist Martin Rojas, what would become one of her most critically acclaimed albums in which she sings praises to Salvador Allende and the people of Chile a year after the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Among many other hits from the album, she also praises the work of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the beautiful "Hasta Siempre Comandante".
During the 1970s and 1980s Portuondo enjoyed considerable success at home and abroad, with tours, albums (including one of her most lauded recordings in 1984 with Adalberto Alvarez), film roles, and her own television series. Her international profile was due to soar, however, in 1996.
Portuondo sang (duetting with Ibrahim Ferrer) on the album Buena Vista Social Club in 1996. This led, not only to more touring (including playing at Carnegie Hall with the Buena Vista troupe) and her appearance in Wim Wenders' film The Buena Vista Social Club, but to two further albums for the World Circuit label: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo (2000) and Flor de Amor (2004). In July 2005 she presented a symphonic concert of her most important repertoire at the Berlin Festival Classic Open Air am Gendarmenmarkt for an audience of 7,000. The entire program was specially orchestrated by Roberto Sánchez Ferrer, a conductor/pianist with whom she had worked during her early years at Havana's Tropicana Club. Scott Lawton conducted the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg. In 2007 she is performing the title role to sold out audiences in Lizt Alfonso's dance musical "Vida", the story of modern Cuba through the eyes and with the memories of an old woman. In this same year, her performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival was released on DVD. She recorded in 2008 a duets album with brazilian singer Maria Bethania, namaed Maria Bethania e Omara Portuondo.
- 1950s: Amigas (by the Cuarteto las d'Aida)
- 1996: Palabras
- 1996: Buena Vista Social Club
- 1997: Omara Portuondo & Martin Rojas
- 1997: A Toda Cuba le Gusta (by the Afro-Cuban All Stars)
- 1999: Desafios (with Chucho Valdés)
- 1999: Oro Musical
- 1999: Magia Negra
- 1999: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer
- 2000: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo
- 2000: Roots of Buena Vista
- 2000: La Colección Cubana
- 2001: Pensamiento
- 2001: La Sitiera
- 2001: You
- 2002: 18 Joyas Ineditas
- 2002: La Gran Omara Portuondo
- 2002: La Novia del Filin
- 2002: Dos Gardenias
- 2004: Flor De Amor
- 2005: Lágrimas Negras (Canciones y Boleros)
- 2007: Singles
- 2008: Maria Bethania e Omara Portuondo