Eliades Ochoa: The Art of the Storyteller and the Making of History

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eliades-ochoa-photo-by-robert-saxe

It is a proverbial Act of God that the musician Eliades Ochoa should come from Santiago de Cuba. That, after all is where the seed of Cuba’s music tree was sown hundreds of years ago…

…and that is where it grew and bred the greatest trovadores: José “Pepe” Sánchez, Antonio Gumersindo “Sindo” Garay García, José “Chicho” Ibáñez, Rosendo Ruíz, Manuel Corona and Alberto Villalón, all six responsible for the roots and branches of the Cuba’s trova music tree. For from that seed the whole process of life itself began and, after paying the dues it came perfect time for harvest; then, not just a tree, but an artist, was seemingly grown like an axiomatic branch from the ground up. His or her blood was made of sap that bore the poetics of music from his or her heart, through the soul and out of the lips, where—moulded by each one’s peculiar living breath the lyric was formed. Another river of sap and blood flowed through the arteries and veins and on to the arms, hands and out through the fingers that played a something like a “tiple”; an eight-stringed cross between a “tres” and a Spanish guitar. But that is simply not enough for music to be made.

First the trovador must make up songs of his own composition, of others, but of the same kind, meaning songs of “the others own composition” as well. He must always accompany himself on the guitar, or the tres or in the case of many musicians recently, on that peculiar, “eight-stringed tiple”. Then there is the matter of the poetics of the song. Its lyrics must be bred of poetry. The hard and soft accentuated prosody must bump and grind, jump and flutter and wing itself as if flying out of the lips of a bard. The music of the tres or the guitar or the tiple must do likewise and make of the song a poem that will take the breath away. It was and is out of this tradition that the trovador was and continues to be born. It was the same of Sánchez, Garay, Ibáñez, Ruíz, Corona and Villalón, and members of their tribe that the music was begotten and continued to be.

The eventual migration to Havana and the formation of that members’ only club, The Buena Vista Social Club, by men like Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz “Compay Segundo” is a part of that history as was the eventual migration of one of the club’s youngest members, so to speak: Eliades Ochoa. This youngest trovador also made songs of his own composition and played those compositions of Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Sindo Garay and Pepe Sánchez and others of the legendary tree on his magnificent instrument, a collision of tres and guitar. He was equally a bard and a teller of stories of history—a griot in the Afro-Caribbean music tradition. And he made it eventually to the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana. Their music was son and danzón, bolero and guajira and merengue. There and with this Ry Cooder met him with Ferrer and Segundo, Rubén González and Omara Portuondo and the others, when he made that legendary recording—fifty years after the club was born—with Juan de Marcos González. And when the legend spread with that fabled Carnegie Hall Concert and the Wim Wenders film and the Carnegie-made documentary, a new legend was born and the musicians of Buena Vista Social Club began to be sought by the cognoscenti and by simple fans alike in venues across the world.

This is what brought Eliades Ochoa to the Danforth Music Hall, a venue so apt for the music of son and danzón that it felt like they were playing to members of a sort of foreign Buena Vista Social Club, especially when the musicians exhorted the audience to stand up and dance with them and to their music. No one could resist or refuse for such was the hypnotic fire of the music of trumpet and conga, tres and maracas that it had to be done according to their word. And it was not just apt, but spectacularly unique—an experience never to be forgotten. Not only was that because Ochoa was who he was and a performer of the highest order, but also because of who accompanied him as well. The musicians had to be a part of his Cuban retinue. He could never have made it with a house band. This was Buena Vista Social Club revisited and the audience—every man woman and child—was members only. Of course that was not the way it was in the 30s and 40s with Garay and Corona and Ruíz. Then it was a matter of the men enjoying history with cigars and “certain women”. Then it was a matter of understanding the times they were in and the ills of Fulgencio Batista.

But the revolution was brewing not only in politics; it was a question of inevitable change in the Art of telling a story as much as it was in the matter of history and that was, in itself the making of Cuban music history. And so this night in 2012, the trovador, resident in the Danforth Music Hall, but for a fleeting two hours, not only tells stories of his own composition and those like ones of others making, he remakes history with this art of Cuban son and danzón and merengue and guajira. Most of the audience, had, hitherto lived vicariously, through Wenders’ film and through Cooder’s and Gonzalez’ recording.

But now is the time of reckoning and the audience is melded to the hip of Ochoa and his ensemble. The musicians are blazing a new trail in the art. Trumpeters, Alain Antonio Dragonit Cotorruello and Lenis Lara Castellanos are on fire. Theirs is a molten mix of volvic splendour that is being poured out in short bursts; spurting upwards it seems from Ochoa’s vortex of energy. Pianist Marcos Antonio Fernandez Lopez is keeping the harmonic content at the highest level. He would have been better served by a 7’ Steinway Grand, but tonight the music is much too loud and only a relatively miniature version of any grand piano will do as long as the mood is ebullient and the joy loud and palpable. Fernandez Lopez is joined in the art of tonal coloration by guitarist Osnel Odit Bavastro, a large and voluble presence throughout the concert. The guitarist wears an eternal smile, barks and hoots occasionally into the microphone, adding colourful accents to the lyrics of Ochoa. He counts down most of the music and the tone of his guitar is remarkable. A middle register tenor guitar this silhouette guitar appears to be made of one flowing line from body to fret and sounds just like that long flowing line throughout the concert.

Missing from the instrumental collection was the large presence of the acoustic bass, but that was cleverly substituted by a 5-string electric bass that was superbly tuned and although the memorable textures of the acoustic bass is sorely missed, the work of José Angel Martínez Nieves is noteworthy. He is a rhythmic rock and a sublime melodist when he is called upon to be one. His solo on the opening chart played by Eliades Ochoa sets the tempo and high standard of his play throughout the night. He is magnificently supported by the percussion colourist, Jorge Maturell Romero and the magnificent Eglis Ochoa on maracas and vocals. The other Ochoa is also a magnet for musical ideas and although he plays a deeply humble role of reflecting the poetry of the elder Ochoa, it is impossible to ignore him. Eglis Ochoa keeps a steady and subtly shaded rhythm on the maracas as he sings in harmony with guitarist Odit Bavastro and it is off their energy that the legendary Eliades Ochoa feeds.

The leader is magnificent throughout the first set; as tight as the rest of the ensemble is. He is gracious throughout the repertoire that he brings to the Danforth this night. And he is magnificent as well. Ochoa’s voice is razor sharp. His intonation is deep and resonant. He sallies forth from one song to the next. The lyric element of each is soaring not just from his lips but from the world of Santiago de Cuba, to all over the world. His version of “Pintate los labios Maria” is as exquisite as the history making story of the character is elevating. Ochoa shapes the son as he might have the body of a woman: sensually and with vivid lines that issue likes sparks from his wanton heart. On the magnificent rendition of “Estoy Como Nunca” he exhorts his singers and musicians to an urgency that makes the heart beat faster. Here the short and longer lines of the song collide and entwine to bring the narrative towards its glorious fruition.

The shorter, staccato lyric elements of “Arrimate pa’ca” drive Ochoa and his ensemble to punctuate each chorus with hearty palmas. It is here, also that his spectacular story-telling abilities come to a head as they reach another realm of perfection. His stratospheric bursts on the tres/guitar take this song, as it does every other one to another level. Ochoa’s soli are brief and only serve to accentuate the dramaturgy of the lyrics. But each one is succinct, presented and alive through hard slams of the root notes of the chord followed by harmonic invention of the highest order. In fact, it is almost impossible to separate the genius of Ochoa as a tresor and a vocalist. Both elements of this great musician combine to tell a story like no other musician. And it is easy to see, as his list of songs unfolds, how the Buena Vista Social Club has given rise to the monumental son, salsa and the rest of the Afro-Cuban music tradition that is now alive in Florida.

Perhaps no Eliades Ochoa concert would be complete without the great songs of the Buena Vista Social Club. This has to take the form of Compay Segundo’s classic, “Chan-Chan” a song so legendary and so rhythmically intense that it grabs the hearts of all present and forces participation from the very soul of every soul in the house. Ochoa offered his own twist to this legendary son as he did to the equally great compositions “El Carretero” and “Candela”. With his rumbling “R”s and his sliding “S”s Ochoa brings the music of these legendary charts to life in just the same manner as Segundo and his compatriots do in the Wenders film and as they did at the two concerts in Havana and at the Carnegie in New York.

However, it is not only Ochoa who brings the music to life. It is also his ensemble, meaning particularly the two musicians positioned at the extremities of the stage: The great maracas player and vocalist, Eglis Ochoa and the Music Director of the night, Osnel Odit Bavastro. Both of these men were spectacular, especially when the former performed his maracas solo and the latter wove his ample body into a mesmerising dance. This and the conga and bongo solo by Jorge Maturell Romero in the penultimate song of the recital capped off a performance to remember. But at the end of the day it was a magnificent concert that was led by the great Ochoa that made for a memorable night.

The brief introductory opening of Toronto’s own Laura Fernández’ stellar showing and her brilliant guitarist-accompanist Noah Zacharin was most apt. Surprisingly the audience was gracious and patient throughout her performance. In concerts past when a member of the Buena Vista Social Club has performed things might have turned out rather differently. However, Toronto audiences being what they are, Fernández was given a fair listen and she did not disappoint this eager audience either. She proved in his very own and unique way that she is a sensually original voice and a fine pianist as well. Playing songs from her reasonably successful independently produced debut album, Un Solo Beso  Fernández set a sultry mood before she made way for the main event, the Grammy-award-winning Eliades Ochoa and his 8-piece Cuban band. Ochoa, for his part, established the legendary existential reality of not only the Buena Vista Social Club and its other surviving members—Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, “laud” player, Barbarito Torres and the great trombonist, Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos and the great chanteuse Omara Portuondo… Eliades Ochoa also proved that in the Art of Music there is also the Making of History over and over again.

* Eliades Ochoa performed a sold out concert in Toronto on Saturday, November 3, 2012 at the Danforth Music Hall.

Photographs by Robert Saxe