For the latest album from Buena Vista Social Club keyman Eliades Ochoa, the Santiago de Cuba-born master of the tres and cuatro has teamed up with his sister and long-time collaborator Maria Ochoa for Guajira + Mas Guajira (Tumi Music) – an exploration of their shared musical heritage with the support of Cuban band Alma Latina. A two-year labor of love, the album chronicles Ochoa’s lifelong fascination with guajira music, Cuba's answer to country.
Far from an academic exercise or some misguided nostalgia trip, the former Cuarteto Patria mainman puts his own spin on guajira, borrowing freely from Afro-Latin styles to enrich his repertoire, with the ease of a seasoned veteran who understands the tradition from the ground up. Elegant guitar and string work combine with the Ochoas’ gritty, endearing vocals, with bluesy blasts of electric guitar, Caribbean hints, and the pulse of Latin percussion.
“Together with Buena Vista Social Club, this album is one the most important and interesting recordings of my life,” says Eliades Ochoa. “Alma Latina is an inspiration and an expression of art, music, painting and dance. It is a call to bring harmony and love through music to all human beings and Latin brothers. And it’s about the dance,” an element that runs through every charming track on the album.
Maria Ochoa remembers sitting with her brother as a young girl. He would play some tunes on his battered guitar, and she would swing in the hammock and sing. They both grew up surrounded by song and tres playing, thanks to their musical family, farmers in a small town in Cuba’s mountainous, rural east. They grew up steeped in Cuba’s country sounds and both grew into riveting performers.
From those halcyon early days, Eliades began to rethink tradition and, with time, to make a name for himself. He added strings to the tres, developing his own playing style. In the 60s, Ochoa got a standing gig playing for the Santiago de Cuba radio station, with its rural audience. He started his own groups and won a coveted spot at the Casa de Trova. Eventually, the venerable Cuban musical institution, Cuarteto Patria, asked Ochoa to join.
Ochoa has never bothered to do what was expected of him, however. Instead of simply agreeing, he insisted he should lead the ensemble. And though he specialized in the rustic, bittersweet sounds of the countryside, Ochoa began to weave more cosmopolitan sounds into the group’s work, adding a touch of tango and bursts of brass, as well as encouraging his new band to incorporate trova and son into their performances.
The dialogue with his sister, one of his first musical collaborators, has a winning naturalness, a warmth that invites the listener in. Maria is a formidable Latin music force in her own right. She often played with her brother during his early Santiago days, but really came into her own in the late 80s, playing with Rubén González, Gloria America, Mario Patterson, Sonera Edition, Tierra Caliente Caribe Typical, Los Kinis and The Achala Group. She began touring the world with other Cuban heavyweights, including Buena Vista alums Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and her brother Eliades, when not cutting her own albums. Last year, she joined Alma Latina, directed by rising star Julio Montoro.
Together, the sibling team and Alma Latina touch on the melancholic yearning of rustic Cuban sounds, then hit hard with upbeat irresistible Latin dance numbers. It’s a celebratory collection of performances lovers of Buena Vista will instantly fall for. Many music fans outside the Latin world may not know they love guajira, the style that animates the album, but chances are they already do. From “Guantanamera” to the Wailers’ unexpected ska take on the style, the music has infiltrated global pop.
“Cuban music has a certain feel, that sway, that harmony,” reflects Eliades. “It can get right to the heart and the soul, no matter who you are.”