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La Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba occupies a small colonial building with high-beam ceilings and long street-level windows that at noon on a September Sunday are filled with the faces of people looking in. The austere room feels more like a chapel than Santiago's most storied music club, and the acoustics are appropriately miraculous. No one uses a microphone, ever. Gnarled old men in guayaberas share the rows of wooden chairs with young couples bouncing toddlers on their laps. One budding musician hoping to jam carries a pair of maracas in a plastic shopping bag. A woman in a churchgoing dress in the front row hits two claves -- wooden sticks -- together, keeping time for the five players on-stage.
Eliades Ochoa presides this afternoon, sitting on the small platform with his group Cuarteto Patria. "I don't trust women any more, I don't trust women," Ochoa wails in a hollow tenor while strumming his guitar, and the old men in the audience absently sing along, nodding.
A formidable figure with a raspy drawl, Ochoa wears his customary pointy patent-leather shoes and cowboy hat. A squarish tuft of gray bristles sprouts from under his lip. He looks like he could be found spitting tobacco juice in the stands at a Texas rodeo rather than playing ballads on a Cuban guitar. But Ochoa is one of the most celebrated performers in Santiago, where the distinctive sound of son -- that heady mix of African and Spanish rhythms forming the base of most Cuban music (and salsa) -- was born a century ago. The eastern port city is still a breeding ground for the country's musicians. Over the past three decades, the 50-year-old Ochoa has spent more time at the Casa de la Trova than at home. When he's not on-stage, he often sits at one of the tables in the back of the club with a glass of rum.
So when Ry Cooder was searching last year for "some of the greatest musicians in Cuba" to join him on a recording of classic Cuban music, Ochoa was not hard to find. Cooder had him flown to Havana, where several generations of outstanding Cuban players convened in the studio of Egrem, the state-run recording company. They included legendary singers Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer -- also from Santiago -- septuagenarian pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and bass player Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, son of Orestes Lopez and nephew of renowned bassist Israel Lopez, "Cachao."
The resulting album, Buena Vista Social Club, is one of three recorded in Cuba released in this country by Nonesuch (see sidebar for review). Ochoa plays his homemade hybrid of a standard six-string guitar and Cuban tres on five of the fourteen tracks. He sings lead vocals on "El Carretero," a twangy Cuban country lament; "El Cuarto de Tula," a rousing, improvisational son; and Segundo's "Chan Chan," a love song with a crying trumpet solo and slow dance rhythm. These songs are business as usual for Ochoa, who has spent a lifetime playing son in its purest form.
"The son is very simple," Ochoa explains. "It's a tres, some bongos, a pair of claves, some maracas. The music shouldn't be written down, and the musicians playing it don't have to know each other. We just get together and I grab a tres, another guy grabs the bongos, another the maracas, and there's the son. That's all you need."
Cooder, who has a musicologist's interest in world rhythms and has previously worked with artists from India and Africa, wisely stuck with that time-honored method. Ochoa says that although the American guitarist plays on most of the tracks, he let the Cubans take the lead, play what they wanted, and improvise. To Cooder's credit, the CDs are beautifully produced, with a lushness rarely found on recordings from Cuba.
Ochoa has heard through the grapevine that Buena Vista is selling well, allowing him more exposure than two records by his regular band Cuarteto Patria that were issued in the past few years in the United States by the independent label Corason. He says it doesn't bother him if he and the other Cuban musicians get noticed only by association with a big American name.
"If the record sells well because of Ry Cooder, that's okay," Ochoa says. "There's a saying that goes, 'One hand washes the other and both hands wash the face.'" Meaning that the record will keep people listening to the Cuban classics, Ochoa's main goal.
"I like a lot of different music, but what I give to the public is traditional Cuban music," says Ochoa. "While I can still move my fingers on the fretboard of my guitar I won't play anything else."
Many of the songs Ochoa now performs he first heard on his father's transistor radio, numbers recorded in the 1950s by Beny More or El Trio Matamoros. Ochoa's family were poor country people who lived in a mountain village outside Santiago. Both his father and his mother played tres, although not professionally, and Ochoa learned young. "The guitar and I were the same size then," he says.