Buena Vista's Ochoa joins club of hot Cuban singers

Music: Eliades Ochoa wrought magic performing the traditional Cuban way and his musical imports delight Americans.

February 22, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Just five years ago, getting a ticket to see Eliades Ochoa perform would have been an impossibility for most Americans.

Because of a cultural boycott instituted during the Reagan era (and only recently lifted), the singer and guitarist was, like all other musicians living in Castro's Cuba, barred from visiting the United States. Nor would recordings by the 52-year old musician have been legally available in this country.

Now, all that has changed. Not only have cultural restrictions been loosened, but thanks to the album "Buena Vista Social Club," and a subsequent documentary film, Ochoa and other masters of son -- an African-based traditional style that is the backbone of modern Cuban music -- have found a large and appreciative audience in the United States.

"Buena Vista Social Club" won a Grammy last year, and Ochoa's first U.S. album, "Sublime Illusion," is up for the award this year. Although, to be honest, Ochoa tends to downplay the importance of the nomination.

"There are many important American musicians on my album," he says, referring to a guest list that includes guitarist Ry Cooder, blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite and Los Lobos leader David Hidalgo.

"I think that is why it was nominated for a Grammy, because there are many important American musicians on it."

Maybe so, but it's worth noting that fellow Buena Vista Social Club alumnus Ibrahim Ferrer is also a Grammy nominee. There definitely seems to be something magical about the Club.

Named after a now-defunct Havana nightclub that in its day hosted the biggest names in Cuban music, "Buena Vista Social Club" has become a world-music phenomenon. Since its release three years ago, the album has sold more than a million copies in the United States alone. It also inspired a documentary film by German director Wim Wenders, which not only features performances by the group, but includes interviews with Ochoa, Ferrer and others.

At the same time, the disc introduced U.S. listeners to a sound that was as unfamiliar as it is entrancing. Thanks to the popularity of salsa and the enduring impact of Afro-Cuban jazz, many listeners assumed that all Cuban music was built around the interplay of percussion and brass.

But son started out using mainly guitars and drums, and that tradition carries through in the sound of the "Buena Vista Social Club" musicians -- particularly Ochoa, whose roots are in the rural guajira style.

It may seem odd to find music Cubans have taken for granted suddenly become hip and fashionable in the United States, but Ochoa is genuinely flattered by the attention he has gotten. "I'm very proud that such great musicians would want to play with me," he says, speaking through a translator.

"To me, the fact that such people want to play with me, the great musicians of this country, [means] that I am recognized as an artist. It gives me the strength to proceed, and I want to do a lot more."

He laughs, and adds, "I want everyone to record with me!"

"Sublime Illusion" hadn't started out as an all-star project. Ochoa knew Cooder and his son, drummer Joachim Cooder, from the sessions for "Buena Vista Social Club," which Cooder produced. Likewise, Musselwhite had recorded with Ochoa before, on the bluesman's album, "Continental Drifter." But the inclusion of Hidalgo was entirely accidental.

"I didn't know David Hidalgo before," says Ochoa. "He was visiting the studio when we were recording. We met there. They said, `This is David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, a famous musician from the United States.' So I said, `Come play with us.' He said OK and sat down and played, and it was great."

Now that he is touring the United States, Ochoa takes every opportunity to check out American musicians. But when asked if anything particularly appealed to him, Ochoa declines to single out anyone. "I have admiration for all music, so for me to pick a particular person and say I like this music more than another, I can't do that," he says. "Of all of the music I've heard in America, I love all of it."

Ochoa has no trouble recommending Cuban musicians, however. "There are a lot of great musicians in Cuba," he says. "Among those I would recommend, for example, is Sal Delgado. This man plays salsa. He's really great, I admire him a lot. Also, Adalberto Alvarez y su son. And El Orquestra Aragon.

"There are many great musicians in Santiago in Cuba who play traditional music. Like Las Hermanas Ferrin [The Ferrin Sisters], who are touring with me."

Ochoa adds that he is overjoyed at the enthusiasm U.S. audiences have shown for his music. "I feel very content," he says. "Musicians should be welcome everywhere, to cross any border, because they are the ambassadors of culture.

"Music is the only important thing they have to be concerned with. They aren't interested in anything political; they don't represent anything political faction of one type or another. They only represent music, and that brings all people together. It transcends political content.

"So I'm happy that the borders are open and people are welcome, because musicians are the ambassadors of good will and love."

Eliades Ochoa

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

Where: The Senator Theater

Tickets: $33

Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 410-323-1989 for information

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