Favorite Sonero

Buena Vista Social Club Cowboy Eliades Ochoa

Favorite Sonero

"Eliades Ochoa nacio sonero. En Cuba. Para el Mundo."

The opening subtitles for an hourlong promotional video documenting Eliades Ochoa's Higher Octave debut last year, Sublime Ilusion, a trio of Spanish sentences relate the account of the Cuban sonero's life succinctly: He was born to sing the song of Santiago de Cuba -- the son (rhymes with cone). In Cuba. For the whole world.

"The son is the most representative thing of Santiago," says Ochoa about (and, via phone, from) the East Cuban province's capital city. Like the rest of the expert but rarely seen documentary, Ochoa does not come with subtitles, his Spanish soft and clipped. "The son is a melody with a delicious harmony. The son is a flag for Cuba's national music. The banner."

As with a number of stateside blues legends interviewed in these pages recently, Ochoa, a revered musician in his homeland, is taking a nap at the appointed hour of our interview. Correction: taking a siesta. The connection is bad, a three/four second delay making conversation hard. A Higher Octave representative has given ample warning of the primitive phone lines connecting los Estados Unidos with a place Ochoa describes as paradise.

"Santiago is beautiful, surrounded by the ocean and the mountains," says Ochoa with a laid-back formality, his voice like that of a statesman. "With lots of beach. There's no other city like Santiago. It's unique."

Born just outside the city 54 years ago, Ochoa estimates the population of Santiago de Cuba at just over one million. He owns two houses there, one in the city and another in the country, raising his family of four: three boys and a little girl, 10. One of his sons, Eglis, plays maracas in the elder Ochoa's band, accompanying three of the sonero's siblings -- brothers Humberto and Enrique on guitar and vocals, and occasional guest singer, sister Maria Ochoa. On her own recent international debut, the lilting Asi Quiero Vivir (Like This I Want to Live), Maria almost lets her tres-playing brother Eliades steal the show with his six-string seduction. In Santiago, music is the constant.

Favorite Sonero

"Santiago is a musical city," explains Eliades, who as portrayed in both the Sublime Ilusion "TV special" and director Wim Wenders' now-celebrated Buena Vista Social Club feature film, is not a man of many words. "He who sings, dances. In Santiago, everybody sings or plays or dances."

The Academy Award-nominated film, like Cuba's favorite rum drink Mojitos -- sweet, intoxicating -- documents Ochoa walking down some railroad tracks in his black cowboy hat, thin wisps of a white goatee growing from the Kirk Douglas cleft in his chin. It was Ochoa, the adored theatrical release and video rental favorite informs us, who sings the Buena Vista Social Club's unofficial theme, "Chan Chan." Asked if the film changed his life, Ochoa sounds a little like an old bluesman.

"It's given me lots of promotion," says Ochoa, "but they didn't pay me for the film. It's made me very famous, but they haven't paid anything. Every day they say, 'Tomorrow.'"

But where Wenders' motion picture spends more time with BVSC alums Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén Gonzalez, and Omara Portuondo, the Higher Octave doc neatly sums up Ochoa in the brief text accompanying that first shot of the Cuban cowboy strolling down the cobblestone streets of Santiago with a guitar case in hand.

Ochoa, according to his label's Spanish filmmakers, was six when he first picked up the tres guitar, and by the time he was 12, had a small fan base and was making money playing live on the streets. He soon became popular in the local bodegas. Years later, in the Seventies, he joined one of the most seminal groups in traditional Cuban music, Cuarteto Patria. He became their musical director not long afterwards, and since that time, they have been inseparable.

"Un sonero," Ochoa describes himself in the video. "A farmer's son born into a humble family. When I opened my eyes, my father played the tres, my mother played the tres, my uncle the guitar. And, well, I'm grateful for what I am, [but] it's in my blood."

He tells the tale of being a child and one day stopping at the end of the street and sitting down to play music with some friends, the hat out in front of them. As they sang, passing grownups would stop to watch, and laughing at their presentation, would throw coins into the hat. After that, Ochoa and his friends went no farther than the end of their block. Playing on that corner was how they financed their trips to the local cinema paradiso.

Favorite Sonero

Soon, as the script often reads in the life of many a musician, he began sneaking into local nightclubs. He was way too young to be inside, of course, but as they threw him out the front door, he always crept in through the back. The women that worked these night spots took a liking to the youth, unplugging the jukebox and entreating the "Cubanito" to play; remember, Ochoa was already a teenager in 1959 when Fidel Castro's revolution transformed the island paradise and puppet U.S. country club into a third world country. When he was done singing, he'd go around to the tables to collect tips. Don't think this was spending money, either, Ochoa tells the camera.

"I brought it home," he says, "and it was with that that we ate."

His sponsors at the clubs were concerned that Ochoa was an orphan, but he assured them he had a mother, father -- the whole bit. Problem was, neither worked and there were six children to feed and clothe. This explains how Ochoa became one of the world's finest tres players ("in that group, maybe, but not the best," demurs Ochoa over the phone). In 1978, Ochoa joined island-renowned soneros Cuarteto Patria and was appointed its music director by the retiring leader, Pancho Cobas.

Eliades Ochoa y Cuarteto Patria continued in relative fame until journeyman guitarist and Yankee Ry Cooder included its leader in an all-star tribute to Cuba's golden age of son in 1996. The resulting album, Buena Vista Social Club, as romantic and evocative of Cuba as the film that followed nearly two years later, became a franchise for the World Circuit/Nonesuch label, begetting a series of excellent spinoffs, including debuts from Ferrer, Gonzalez, and two fine malt scotch blends in 94-year-old Compay Segundo's Lo Mejor de la Vida (1998), and last year's equally smooth Calle Salud. This year, Omara Portuondo regaled Austin's Bass Concert Hall with songs from her enchanting self-titled debut, while 80-year-old pianist Gonzalez recently followed up his outstanding debut Introducing... with the slightly scattershot but endearing Chanchullo.

Like some of his BVSC compadres, Ochoa's coming out, last year's Sublime Ilusion, wasn't his first album to receive international distribution -- 1995's The Lion Is Loose, for instance, came out on Rounder-distributed Corason -- but after the success of Buena Vista Social Club, Cuba was suddenly as enticing as it had been during the Eisenhower administration. Though Ochoa chose Higher Octave over World Circuit/Nonesuch to release Sublime Ilusion; what ultimately distinguishes this five-star album from the rest of the BVSC pack is the fact that it's contemporary work. Ferrer, Segundo, Gonzalez, Portuondo are all well past retirement age and tend to evoke the past, whereas Ochoa is still well in his prime and traffics in the here and now. Sublime Ilusion mirrors this.

"It's very beautiful," says Ochoa in the label's promo, venturing the opinion that the album has historical significance. "And in the life story of Eliades Ochoa y Cuarteto Patria, in what remains of my life, it's going to be a bit impossible to make a record of this quality again, Sublime Ilusion."

He wasn't kidding. One of the best albums of 1999, Sublime Ilusion and its rhythm-rich blend of guarachas, sons, boleros, tangos -- effervescent in their acoustic glow -- polishes the patina of a musical form that is all too often being preserved rather than updated. When he and Cuarteto Patria played La Zona Rosa in February, just the fact that the audience could move about and dance -- and were doing so -- rather than being planted in their seats as they had been at the PAC for Omara Portuondo, as well as an Ibrahim Ferrer/Rubén Gonzalez double bill last year, illustrated more than just booking strategies. It demonstrated Ochoa's desire to bring this music back to life, back to the nightlife. The show was an absolute treasure.

As is Ochoa's new album, Tribute to the Cuarteto Patria. If it's not as good as Sublime Ilusion, then it will take a musicologist to tell the difference, the new disc as subtly spellbinding as the previous one. When Maria Ochoa reaches a musical clearing in "No Quiero Celos" announcing, "And came Eliades Ochoa, el Maestro de los dedos de oro," you don't have to know "dedos de oro" means "fingers of gold" to feel the quiet majesty of the tune and the 11 others on the album. If the Carnegie Hall concert finale in Buena Vista Social Club the film took your breath away, Tribute to Cuarteto Patria should make a few "World Music" fans hyperventilate. And what better birthday present for the Cuarteto Patria, an institution that turned 60 earlier this year.

"I'm glad you called," says Ochoa at the end of our brief conversation. "I'm glad you called to ask about those things that many don't know about: a group of soneros from Santiago de Cuba. I send greetings to your town, because when I go there I gets lots of love and applause. Lots of goodwill."

Allow us, Ambassador. end story

Eliades Ochoa y Cuarteto Patria play La Zona Rosa Wednesday, Nov. 8.

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