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He was about ten years old when they moved down to the city. Ochoa saw electric lights for the first time, and he also started to work. He made a shoeshine box and set up shop in a busy plaza, where he sold lottery tickets as well. "But at night I was a musician," he says.
Ochoa started playing on the street, in front of stores and restaurants. "In those days there was no Cultural Ministry in Cuba, no state organization to help you out. Everyone made their own groups and went out to fight for their living." As an adolescent he started to venture into bars, wandering into the "tolerance zone," as the red-light district was called.
"The women who made their living that way helped me a lot," he recalls fondly. "When I'd come in, they'd turn off the record player and I started playing the guitar. Then it was the women who swept the change off the table into my hat. It was 25 cents here and 10 cents there, but when I'd finished for the night I had two or three pesos. A whole family could live on that then."
But the times were changing, and after the revolution in 1959 the busy bordellos were forced to shut down. Then the newly installed government began to regulate culture, with an emphasis on promoting national and regional arts. In 1963 Ochoa, by then a well-known figure in Santiago, was hired to play country music on a weekly half-hour radio program.
"I started to feel like an artist," recalls Ochoa, smiling. "They paid me a salary. Then they asked me to be on another show and paid me more. I was finished with playing in the street. I felt good."
In 1970 Ochoa began performing regularly at the state-run Casa de la Trova. In 1978 he joined Cuarteto Patria, already an established band. Older members retired or passed away, and Ochoa replaced them with younger musicians. His brother plays guitar and his son recently joined on maracas.
The band has about a dozen albums. Since 1979 it's left the island five times to tour the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe. In 1988 Cuarteto Patria journeyed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a festival of Cuban culture organized by the Smithsonian on the National Mall. A live recording of that groundbreaking event, Cuba in Washington, was just released by Smithsonian's Folkways label. The album is a no-frills affair that sounds flat next to Buena Vista, but it does serve to document the enthusiasm of the American audience on crowd pleasers like "Guantanamera."
"I'm proud to see how Cuban music is accepted abroad," Ochoa says. "I don't even understand why that is. But what's certain is that anywhere you go people like Cuban son. Wherever we sing a bolero they like it. People who don't even speak Spanish make requests: 'Guantanamera,' 'Lagrimas Negras.' So many songs, it's unbelievable. But if it didn't make the public happy, there'd be no reason for the music to exist."
Ochoa hopes to record a new album this year; he says he's currently considering an offer from a Spanish label to sign an exclusive contract. Meanwhile he's hanging at La Casa de la Trova. There's one thing that's bothering him, though. No one from Cooder's camp or the Smithsonian has bothered to get him a copy of either of the new CDs.
"We'll see what happens," Ochoa muses."I think that one of these days I'm going to get ahold of those compact discs, just for my use -- to listen to them at home." He takes a long draw of his drink. "That's a dream I have right now. If I could get those CDs, that would be a great thing. I could feel like a famous musician."