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.
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."
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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."