More than a quarter century since his most significant global breakthrough as a member of Buena Vista Social Club, Eliades Ochoa returns with the solo album Guajiro, a collection of primarily original songs and renditions of folk tunes that are some of the singer/guitarist’s most personal pieces. Joining him are acclaimed talents, including Joan As Police Woman, Ruben Bladés, and Charlie Musselwhite, all of whom contribute their well-deserved star quality to Ochoa’s polished ensemble. Prolific though he is, Ochoa has never before put together as much original material as he does on Guajiro, and it’s satisfying to hear how seamlessly his work blends in with other music that has been formative for his enduring career.
Ochoa’s credentials speak for themselves, but he doesn’t rest on his Ry Cooder-endorsed laurels. The musicianship here is impeccable and varied from start to finish. The guitar and tres work, primarily by Ochoa and collaborator Amir Haddad (who also plays a lush bouzouki on Guajiro‘s final track), is quick and light, intricate without being overwrought. A three-piece horn section (Raony Sánchez Rosaez on trumpet and Roque Martinez and Angel Luis Aguiar Muñoz on alto saxophones) adds brassy heat to just under half the album, making for an overall tonal balance—no bombast for bombast’s sake. As an all-purpose percussionist, Angel Herrera is indispensable and just as light-handed as the rest of the band as he switches nimbly between bongo, guiro, campana, tumbadora, clave, maracas, and pandereta within and between songs. Joan Wasser brings her voice and violin to the dreamy “Creo en la Naturaleza”, while Charlie Musselwhite plays guitar and harmonica on the bluesy “West”.
Ochoa’s range as a songwriter shows clearly from the gently jubilant opener “Vamos a Alegrar El Mundo” onward. “Pajarito Voló”, featuring Rubén Blades, makes for an especially impactful mix of soft, hard, lovelorn, and hopeful. “Se Soltó un Leon” has a warm groove and thoughtful layers of percussion and vocals filling out the piece.
The covers, too, are carefully chosen and executed in such a way that, if you didn’t know otherwise, they could easily be passed off as Ochoa’s own. Senén Suárez-penned “Soy Guajiro” features some of Ochoa’s sharpest and most robust guitar and tres parts. The closer, “Los Ejes de Mi Carreta”, is an impassioned take on a poignant composition by Atahualpa Yupanqui. Both originally by ex-Zafiros salsero Sergio Rivero, “Ando Buscando Una Novia” and “Anita, Tun Tun Tun” are sprightly and fun amid sweeter, more languid originals like “Abrazo de Luz” and “Canto Para Ti Guajira”.
Once one of the youngest Buena Vista Social Club members, Eliades Ochoa remains a fount of music and life lessons many years later, as heard clearly on Guajiro. He blends his rural upbringing and cosmopolitan present with skillful refinement and a weathered voice, at once vibrant and wizened and always a consummate professional. Guajiro is nothing too cutting-edge in terms of sound; its strength is in the band’s understanding of musical roots. Still, it feels fresh, endowed with a collaborative spirit that makes for something wonderfully new.