A timeless musician

A timeless musician

Cuban maestro Eliades Ochoa continues to captivate in Guajiro


Eliades Ochoa was a key member of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, which was established in 1996 and organised into a stellar ensemble of Cuban musicians, many of whom performed Cuban music of the 1940s and 1950s -- bolero, son and danzon. An album was released to great acclaim and a film documentary of the group garnered an Academy Award for director Wim Wenders.

The success of the album and documentary sparked interest in Cuban and Latin music in general and propelled stars like Company Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrar, Ruben Gonzalez and Omar Portuondo to global fame. Sadly, many of the original members have since gone to the Latin music stage in the sky but guitarist, tres player and singer Ochoa, one of the youngest of the Buena Vista Social Club, continues to perform and record.

Although widely regarded as a master of Cuban traditional music, he has collaborated with musicians from many backgrounds, from Manu Dibango to Bob Dylan. Interested readers should check out the Cuba-West Africa collaboration AfroCubism, which was released in 2010.

His most recent album, Guajiro (World Circuit), came out in May this year. It is his most personal album for some time, as many of the songs are original compositions. Guesting on several tracks are famous musicians like Ruben Blades and harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite (who plays both guitar and blues 'harp' in the bluesy West). The addition of collaborator Amir Haddad's delightful bouzouki, especially on the final track, Los Ejes De Mi Carreta, works beautifully with Ochoa's deft tres and guitar playing.

The musicianship is top-class throughout. Ochoa has a three-piece horn section that adds a brassy base that supports but does not overuse the guitar and tres. As a composer, Ochoa shows his chops on the dancer Vamos A Alegrar El Mundo, while Blades joins him to great effect on the moving Pajarito Volo, and the smooth groove of Se Solto Un Leon.

There are also some great covers, which he makes his own, such as Los Ejes De Mi Carreta and Soy Guajiro, the latter of which really does showcase his tres and guitar-playing skills. His voice, matured like fine wine, has never sounded better or indeed fresher. An excellent album from a Cuban master -- highly recommended. More information: worldcircuit.co.uk.

Fania Records is one of the seminal labels in the development of Latin music in the US. The label, founded in 1964 by Dominican bandleader/composer Johnny Pacheco and his lawyer Jerry Masuchi became the voice of the 'barrio' during the politically turbulent years of the Vietnam War era. The 'NuYorRican' sound from Puerto Ricans in New York was nurtured by the Fania label and eventually became the salsa sound of the US.

In 2018, Fania's catalogue and assets were acquired by Concord and in 2020 they released in wonderful collection on a subsidiary, Craft Recordings Latino: Fania Records -- It's a Good Feeling, The Latin Soul Of Fania Records: The Singles. This fascinating and beautifully illustrated 4-CD monster is based on Fania's early years when the label released 7-inch singles of two influential sounds -- Latin soul and boogaloo.

Latinos and African Americans lived close to each other in New York, in the barrio and the ghetto. African-Americans listened to R'n'B and soul, and while Latinos also danced to these genres, they also liked mambo and son montuno, originally from Cuba. The mixing of these ethnic populations led to a fusion or hybrid sound that featured Latin genres like mambo, guaguanco, son montuno R'n'B, soul and funk. The result was boogaloo, and one of the first real hits was Bang Bang by the Joe Cuba Sextet, and this was followed by the megahit, I Like It Like That by Pete Rodriguez (a song I like to spin when I DJ).

Some of the key early hits on the Fania label are on CD1, such as Bataan's Gypsy Women and Subway Joe (which was a hit for The Impressions before Bataan gave it a Latin workover). Bataan, a well-known boogaloo star and other big hitters at Fania like Willie Colon (Willie Baby), Bobby Valantin (including his influential hit Geronimo) and percussionist Ray Barretto also feature and fans of the label will know some of these songs. Barretto was given great freedom to experiment, the results of which you can hear on funky tracks like A Deeper Shade Of Soul, Hard Hands and New York Soul.

But there are some surprises, too, from bands and artists I had not heard of, like The Harvey Averne Band, Ralph Robles, The Latinaires, Ralphi Pagan and Bobby Quesada.

These 89 tracks from the early stars of boogaloo and Latin soul propelled Fania to success. Boogaloo was relatively short-lived, peaking in the early 1970s and Latin soul also peaked as the mature Nuyorican salsa sound pumped out by Fania took over. From 1975, Fania concentrated on salsa. The compilation package comes with illustrated liner notes and lots of illustrations from the period. Vinyl fans can get a two-album compilation of 28 of the best tracks.

This compilation has banished rainy-season blues. Highly recommended.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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