Some folks are just fine staying in the country; some want to go afar and chase down the world. Eliades Ochoa was never solely a rural Cuban. Still, he held that life close to heart as he got opportunity after opportunity to collaborate with other musicians, most notably with the elders that came together to gain unexpected fame as the Buena Vista Social Club.
In the 1990s, when the Buena Vistas came out of the Cuban ether and conquered the world, he was one of the “young ones” compared to compadres like Compay Segundo, who was in his 90s when they debuted. While the members each had separate career paths, Ochoa was in a notably more distant orbit as the Stetson-wearing guitarist from the eastern Cuban countryside of Santiago.
While somewhat overshadowed by some of the front-line Buena Vistas, Ochoa—now in his late 70s—endured and has proven to be a soulful, thoughtful, and creative artist. On Guajiro, Ochoa distinguishes himself more: composing his songs, telling his story, and blending his dusty roots with several styles and international guest stars. The elder shows he can flash across the fretboard of the Cuban tres with sparkling runs that starkly contrast his laid-back country boy persona.
Guajiro opens with a song that seems to be as good a foundational thesis as any: “Vamos a Alegrar el Mundo (We’re Bringing Joy to the world)”, which starts with Ochoa telling listeners to grab a beer and get him a shot of rum, and then proceeds to say “enough of sadness” and invites everyone to dance to a singer “with a good hat”. Instrumentally, the lively clave rhythm is accompanied by a lighter-than-air swing delivered by guitar, tres, and brass flourishes.
Ochoa opens the next song, “Soy Guajiro”, with some sparkling tres, bringing us to the countryside’s warm, redolent air. “Guajiro” can be translated to “peasant”, but it is less pejorative and leans more toward “country boy”. He sings of the joys of returning to his farm and the life there.
“Creo en la Naturaleza (I Believe in Nature)” is Ochoa’s first unusual partnership on this self-defining album. He exchanges verses with the Canadian singer and violinist Joan Wasser, who goes by the name Joan As Police Woman. With her bluesy delivery, Wasser helps make this slow, melancholy bolero atypical of the Cuban genre. Ochoa sings wistfully of nature, savoring its beauty but recognizing the sad truth that we are all just passing through. “I don’t know if nature / For many more years / Will give me the energy to see,” he sings, while Wasser’s sultry “I am going to write down / All these fantasies / Tomorrow might be a bolero / Or dreaming of you / A poem of pure beauty.”
The next cut features Ruben Blades, the Panama-born star of the Fania-label golden era of salsa. “Pajarito Volo (The Bird Flew)” starts with a sadly told tale, the allegorical story of a beloved bird the narrator tries to cage but leaves for freedom. Blades comes in for an upbeat coda with back-and-forth exchanges between the two. “Eliades, one learns with blows / Pain is a great teacher,” Blades tells him.
Another unusual partnership that pays off is “West” featuring 79-year-old blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, who has known Ochoa for 20 years. Musselwhite’s soulful playing bridges the American South with Ochoa’s rural roots, carving out its unique but familiar sound.
Guajiro ends with another singular bolero, “Los Ejes de mi Carreta (The Axles on My Cart)”, a folkloric song by Argentina’s Atahualpa Yupanqui of a peasant saying that people think him crazy for not oiling the squeaking axles of his cart. He explains that he likes the sound and that it keeps him company on his lonely treks back and forth.
With a bit of grit in his voice that passes for his sparkle, Ochoa invites us to kick back and enjoy a few minutes with him and his beautiful music. He may have grown up in a rustic milieu, but he’s traveled many miles since and picked up some sophisticated sounds on the way.