This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, December 1999
“My origins are campesino,” says Eliades Ochoa. “I’m a country boy, therefore my style reflects that campesino style—that groove.”
This particular self-styled country boy is the Cuban son and guaracho master who has played guitar for 42 of his 53 years. Raised in Santiago de Cuba, the steamy southeastern birthplace of son and its many rhythmic cousins, Eliades Ochoa is regarded as the finest Cuban guitarist of his generation. Since 1978 he has fronted the near-legendary Cuarteto Patria, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.
But as influential as Ochoa has been in Cuba all these years, he’s only recently been introduced to American audiences. Ochoa’s wonderful smoky voice is the first voice you hear on the hit CD, Buena Vista Social Club. As part of that all-star band Ry Cooder helped assemble in Havana in 1996, Ochoa earned a Grammy and countless American fans. Now, after appearing in Wim Wender’s dreamy new documentary film, The Buena Vista Social Club, he has released a new album with El Cuarteto Patria called Sublime Ilusión.
Musically, Sublime Ilusión is nothing short of glorious. Though all 15 compositions date from Ochoa’s boyhood or earlier, most tracks burn with contemporary intensity. Ochoa pulls raw emotion from his hybrid tres-guitar as his band plays effortlessly with the ever-shifting tensions of son and guaracha. Cameo guests Ry Cooder, David Hidalgo, and Charlie Musselwhite lay back and let the master of rural Cuban guitar shine, notes dancing among the interlocking pulses of bongo, clave, and bass.
I reached Ochoa by phone at Egrem Studios in Havana, just back from touring in Spain and just before going back into the studio. With the help of Spanish-speaking colleague Stephen Bell, we talked about his music.
Right from the start, he rejects the idea that he deserves fame, insisting he’s just a conduit for the music. He speaks of owning the rhythms he grew up with, rather than creating them. Indeed, as far as he’s concerned, the Cuban rhythms were born just as he was in southeastern Cuba.
“Where I’m from, Santiago de Cuba in Oriente,” he says, “that’s where son was born, and where the first bolero was born, too. We are the people of the hottest sun anywhere in the country, because we’re the owners of all these rhythms. These rhythms are the flags of Cuban music. Son, changüí, bolero—they’re all the flags of Cuban music.”
Ochoa refers to human flags, too. Asked about his role in Buena Vista Social Club, he speaks instead of the 91-year-old singer, Compay Segundo.
“Compay was completely out of the music scene for many years before this album. He was forgotten. I brought him to Santiago to play with me in the Cuarteto Patria. He went to Havana after we toured outside the country. We made this record where we played “Chan Chan,” then he went to Havana and got together with the group he’s working with now and has become very famous. I feel very honored that I was the one who rediscovered Compay Segundo. I believe such a Cuban flag as Compay Segundo should never be forgotten. Now he’s doing what he should have been doing all these years.”
I wonder about bands in different parts of Cuba focusing on different styles and rhythms, but Ochoa insists that every musician in Cuba feels equally connected to all the music.
“The music really comes from the depths of Oriente, not that we’re opposed to the people from Havana or anything. The truth is we’re all one family. We share the same roots, the flavor, the heat of the music born in Santiago. Of course, there are bands that dedicate themselves to playing salsa, for example, or son or bolero, but they can play anything.”
On his otherwise standard guitar, Ochoa doubles his D and G strings, with the double Ds an octave apart. This gives his instrument the rare ability to sound both like a standard guitar and a tres, a traditional Cuban fretted instrument with three courses of doubled strings. “El trio y el ciclón,” included on the new CD, is one particularly nice example of Ochoa’s remarkable tonal range.
He also favors tres-like tunings, altering them depending on the key he’s playing in, as tres players shift from G-C-E to G-B-E. But pressed for details on his tunings or how he tweaked his instrument to create his signature sound, Ochoa deflects the question with oblique humility.
“My guitar has a simple tuning, but it is a little different. Sometimes in life you’ve just got to give things a turn, a different angle—do things that will call attention to the angle. That’s something you need to do to keep going forward—to survive.”
Ochoa continues to look forward enthusiastically into the future of El Cuarteto Patria.
“In November, I’ll be making another recording—a very important album with El Cuarteto Patria. This will be an homage to the 60th anniversary of the band. Along with the record, there’ll be a book, telling the story from then to now—the story of from when I was a boy till now. We’ll be recording it in Madrid or someplace in Germany, because we’ll be travelling abroad, and want to take advantage of the opportunity to record on the Continent. Then we’ll tour for a while before coming home to Cuba.”
Ochoa is delighted with all the work and attention he and the band are getting these days. Still, it hasn’t translated into greater personal notoriety in Cuba and he seems genuinely uncomfortable with the notion of fame.
“No, I have a long way to go before I become famous. I believe that I am a follower of Cuban music. I’m ready to defend the music that’s been bequeathed to me. The people who originated these sounds—they’re the ones who are really famous.”
(Special thanks to Stephen Bell and Gustavo Peña for help with the Spanish.)