Eliades Ochoa appears strolling down the rusted train tracks in his featured segment in Wim Wender's documentary Buena Vista Social Club. While the other musicians are featured in their houses or on Havana's colorful, crumbling, crowded streets, Ochoa rambles alone, in the industrial outskirts where the sugar cane harvest rolls into the capital -- where the work of the countryside laborer meets the industrial center. With his guitar high on his chest and his cowboy hat, Ochoa does not evoke the jazz-age charm of his older bandmates; he's a border musician, a guajiro -- a country boy whose music took him from passing the hat in his native Santiago to the heights of international superstardom.
Ochoa is often called the Cuban Johnny Cash, and not only because he wears a black suit. His voice isn't the velvet and smoke of his Buena Vista Social Club costars Ibraim Ferrer and Compay Segundo. His range is so versatile that he can hit both high and low registers, with the same kind of rumble, menace, and high-pitched plaint that make Cash the working man's bard.
With this latest record, Ochoa is, as the title suggests, Better Than Ever. Ochoa was not particularly the star of Buena Vista Social Club -- not as old as ninety-ish Compay Segundo nor as romantically overlooked as Reubén González or Ibraim Ferrer, he has the advantage of not having to live up to his onscreen mythology. Ochoa is a rare thing in the surprisingly diverse Cuban folk music scene: a traditionalist rather than a relic; a subtle innovator rather than a twenty-first century update.
The opening songs on the record are pure son, the shambling, acoustic beat punctuated by vocal chorus that most will recognize as quintessentially Cuban. From here, Ochoa does a kind of round-the-island revue of various Cuban folk styles. In each case, the focus is more in precise rendition than modern fusion. Groups like the Gypsy Kings have made their careers updating and renovating traditional forms. Ochoa seems to have none of this ambition, and I for one am glad for it. Eventually all these fusions start to sound the same, melding into the kind of homogenous "world music" sound that people recognize and dismiss in the same instant. International musicians have only the West's rock example with which to fuse their traditional forms, and it may in fact be rock's own homogeneity that accounts for the predictability of many worldbeat/fusion forays. The losers here are inevitably the diverse musical forms that enter into the pop music machine -- a blender that appears to have only one setting.
Ochoa isn't interested in going anywhere near that blender. I tend to think that part of the reason is his age -- at 56, he is old enough to remember the tail end of the old days, and young enough to have watched rock music age. Perhaps he recognizes that it's just another bastardized folk form, and not a musical common denominator. And, there's the fact that Cuban folk music (and indeed one might say all folk music in the New World) is always already a mix, combining African rhythms with North American jazz and Spanish-flavor guitar. At any rate, the songs on Estoy Como Nunca are precise renderings of indigenous forms, played on traditional instruments, and sung in their original language. Ochoa makes no attempt to coax a North American audience with a few English lyrics, nor do his liner notes provide translations. He's got enough star power to sell records, but with the Shakiras and Enrique Iglesias' of the world speaking English, there's considerably more money to be made in coughing up a translation or two.
Instead, Estoy Como Nunca's precision and fidelity becomes its standout feature. Musicianship is a given, from the virtuosity of Ochoa's soloing up and down the scale in the title track, to the simple plaintiveness of the instrumental "Siboney". Ochoa and his band, el Cuarteto Patria (two of whose members appear by their surnames to be Ochoa's brothers or sons), move from mood to mood and style to style with all the fluidity of true professionals. Songs like "No Me Preguntes Tanto" ("Don't Ask Me So Many Questions") are lighthearted love songs which could sound natural in Ricky Ricardo's nightclub; the slightly darker "Pena" adds a more driving beat and rip roaring trumpet to this formula. In these songs the flowing acoustic guitar is as much a rhythm instrument as the rolling drums, which provide a constantly tapping backdrop to the vocal choruses and solos. These vocal choruses are exactly what make Cuban music and mariachi music so easily recognizable; again, Estoy Como Nunca's virtue is that the arrangements are so flawlessly executed, so crisp and subtly textured that even this convention comes off sounding fresh.
In "Con Dolor en el Alma" ("With Pain In My Soul"), Ochoa sings wrenchingly of "nights of anguish" while the trumpet whoops and groans up the scale, punctuated by the kind of acoustic tremblings that might shake a man during his moments of angst. The trumpet on this album, by the way, is provided by guest musician Anibal Avila, and it is always used with feeling and tact, unlike the senseless blowing that can often homogenize this kind of music.
The album's standout number comes at the end, with the tango "Sus Ojos Se Cerraron" ("Her Eyes Closed"). Tango is, of course, not indigenous Cuban music -- it comes from the brothels and docks of Buenos Aires, Argentina. However the relationship between Cuba and Argentina is rather a special one, because of the importance of the Argentine-born Che Guevara in Cuban history. There is at least one top-notch tango club in Havana; in happier times there may have been many more. "Sus Ojos Se Cerraron" was written by Carlos Gardel, probably the most famous tango singer who ever lived. Ochoa's treatment of this tragic song is both faithful and unique. He inflects his Cuban Spanish with just a touch of the Argentine "ja", which aspirates any kind of normally silent "y" -- but not too much. And, although he drops the sharp-edged, declamatory style of traditional Cuban singing, his delivery of Gardel's gorgeous lyrics does not in any way attempt to imitate Gardel's trademark tremulousness. The result is a different kind of mourning -- "todo es mentira / mentira ese lamento" (everything's a lie / this lament is a lie") -- expressed with the kind of unflinching machismo that comes from knowing the land, the cycles of the harvest, the fear of hurricane, and blight. There's no accompaniment to Ochoa's voice other than a single guitar; the absence of the bandoleón, the tango's accordion-like centerpiece, makes the song somehow less urban, more direct, less melancholy and more stoic.
It's a stunningly moving moment, and one that's achieved with very little fanfare. With Estoy Como Nunca, Ochoa has proved that staying close to home -- taking the time to really know it -- takes you farther than the most ambitious of border-crossings.