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The Boston Phoenix Son of Cuba

Eliades Ochoa comes north

By Banning Eyre

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  Nobody could have predicted the success of Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch) -- Ry Cooder's notion of assembling an array of overlooked Cuban musicians to record nostalgic songs from an all-but-lost past seemed more charming than shrewd at the outset. True, Cuban music has been the hottest subgenre of the world-music market in recent years, but the focus has been on veteran mega-bands like Los Van Van and young pop stars like Isaac Delgado. Cooder's collection of creaky old characters playing their rootsy sones and cool boleros met with rolling eyes among Cuba-pop aficionados.

But now the facts are in: Buena Vista Social Club has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. It is certified gold in the US -- unheard of for most "world music" titles. It has inspired an acclaimed Wim Wenders documentary film and now, inevitably, a flood of spinoff releases. Of these, the most satisfying I've found comes from Buena Vista singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, of Santiago de Cuba, on the island's southeast coast.

The 54-year-old Ochoa contributes substantially to the Buena Vista magic. The first voice we hear on that disc's sultry opening son, "Chan Chan," is his. And though singers Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer ultimately emerge as the smoothest and most versatile vocalists in the group, Ochoa -- widely considered the finest Cuban guitarist of his generation -- provides some of the album's hottest instrumental breaks.

The predominance of acoustic strings, especially Ochoa's shimmering guitar, is a hallmark of his latest, Sublime Ilusión. He has long been known for his ability to make his guitar sound like the Cuban tres: he's added a second D and G string to get the tres's distinctive paired-string chime, and he's developed his own characteristic tunings and monstrous technique. Sublime Ilusión brims with original guitar solos. On the minor-key guaracha "Cariño falso" ("False Love"), he spins out flaming cycles of high notes rich with edgy dissonance. The cantering groove evokes a kind of Cuban cowboy music that fits Ochoa's image -- pointy leather shoes and a cowboy hat -- but Ochoa's crystalline guitar work elevates rural folk to the world stage.

And whereas other Buena Vista Social Club stars -- singer Compay Segundo and pianist Rubén González -- were lured out of retirement for the project, Ochoa has been performing steadily and successfully since age 11, always with the goal of rejuvenating Cuba's folkloric music. A man of humble origins, he calls himself a conduit of music culture, not a creator -- his guitar innovations notwithstanding. He grew up in a mountain village near Santiago and took up the guitar at six. Aided by friendly prostitutes, he became a boy street musician in Santiago; the few pesos he earned every night were enough to support his whole family. When the bordellos were closed after the revolution, Ochoa moved on to a radio station devoted to local songs called guajiras. He contributed to the Trova Cubano (a movement of traditional Cuban music); in 1970 he became a regular at Santiago's Casa de la Trova, a music club and shrine to the cultural heritage of Cuba's wild east. Ochoa played in Quinteto Oriente and Septeto Típico before he was bequeathed the musical mantle of Emilia García's classic son outfit, Patria. That group began in 1939 and continued to thrive in post-revolution Cuba, replacing older musicians with younger ones right up until 1978, when Ochoa was chosen to lead it into the new millennium.

Ochoa's Cuarteto Patria have recorded at least a dozen albums, including two fine releases on the Corazón label. So though the 15 songs on Sublime Ilusión -- spanning all periods of modern Cuban song -- will inevitably be seen as a Buena Vista by-product, it's worth remembering that everything here -- the songs, the singer, the group, and the music -- existed before the Grammy-winning hit. Ochoa says son is just "a tres, some bongos, a pair of claves, some maracas." The musicians don't even have to know one another; they already share the language. Ochoa invites a few famous guests to cameo on the new record: Charlie Musselwhite works bluesy harmonica riffs into the son "Teje que teje" ("Weaving and Weaving"), and Ry Cooder and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo make understated guitar contributions elsewhere. The selection favors lively sones and guarachas, though Ochoa does go in for the occasional slow bolero: on "Mi sueño prohibido" ("My Forbidden Dream") he coaxes lover's angst from his choked-back voice. "Mi guajirita" ("My Little Peasant Girl") borrows the undulating swagger and familiar harmony of "La Bamba" but distinguishes itself with a catchy, staccato vocal refrain. Over and over, Ochoa's masterful guitar solos drive the songs home, to a place largely hidden from American eyes and ears until Buena Vista Social Club.

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