Music

Eliades Ochoa Goes Beyond Buena Vista At 26th Afro Roots Fest

Written By Fernando Gonzalez
March 12, 2024 at 1:19 PM

Eliades Ochoa, a founding member of Buena Vista Social Club, headlines this year’s Afro Roots Fest on Saturday, March 16, at the Miami Beach Bandshell. (Photo courtesy of Massi Giorgeschi)

Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Eliades Ochoa may be a traditionalist in music but does not trade in nostalgia.

He achieved international fame as a charter member and key figure of Buena Vista Social Club, a Grammy-winning 1997 album featuring fresh interpretations of traditional Cuban songs and styles by artists such as singers Omara Portuondo, Pio Leyva, and Ibrahim Ferrer, singer and guitarist Compay Segundo, and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, among others.

It became a global phenomenon.

Eliades Ochoa concludes a 10-city U.S. tour at the Afro Roots Fest in Miami Beach on Saturday, March 16. (Photo courtesy of Massi Giorgeschi)

Ochoa, who had been playing from a very young age and was 50 years old at the time of Buena Vista, rode the wave but kept moving. He still is. And as the headliner of the Afro Roots Fest opening concert at the Miami Beach Bandshell on Saturday, March 16, Ochoa will present his most recent album, “Guajiro” (“Peasant”). The recording marks yet another turn in his long career as it showcases his work as a composer and expands the sound of his customary quartet.

“I wanted to make this new album a little more contemporary,” says Ochoa, speaking in Spanish, freshly arrived from Madrid, where he resides. “There are boleros, a habanera, guaracha, changüí, sones, but I wanted to have different melodies, different harmonies, and you’ll also hear a saxophone and a trumpet, something very different from what I have been doing for a long time.” At the Bandshell event, Ochoa will be backed by a quintet including saxophone and trumpet.

The album, “Guajiro,” also features collaborations with Panamanian singer Ruben Blades, singer and songwriter Joan As Police Woman (Joan Wasser), and old friend, harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite.

Eliades Ochoa ventures outside his comfort zone in his latest album, which features guest artists Ruben Blades, Joan As Police Woman, and Delta blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite. (Photo courtesy of Massi Giorgeschi)

Ochoa has a history of collaborating not only across musical styles but cultural traditions. He believes that music opens the doors to both cultures and emphasizes that there aren’t borders around music.

In its 26th year, Afro Roots Fest celebrates root African culture and its synergies with Western cultural traditions.

Ochoa has long embraced those encounters. Perhaps most notably, he has recorded albums such as “CubAfrica” (1996), a collaboration with the late Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, and the Grammy-nominated “AfroCubism” (2010), which documents a meeting of Cuban and Malian musicians, including masters kora player Toumani Diabate.

Oumu Sangaré, a transcendent vocalist and feminist icon from Mali, headlines the Afro Roots Fest concert at the Miami Beach Bandshell on Saturday, March 30. Sangaré, who burst onto the world music scene with “Moussoulou” (1989), has long become a global superstar. She will present her new album, “Timbuktu,” in which she blends traditional rhythms and singing from her native Wassoulou region in southern Mali with elements of blues and contemporary world music.

Meanwhile, even a cursory look at Ochoa’s extensive recording career would confirm his choice of being an interpreter for some of Cuba’s great songwriters. But in “Guajiro,” Ochoa claims his place as a composer.

“I had in mind that if Pepe Sanchez (regarded as the father of bolero) had made such a beautiful bolero, why would I make another one that was not as good?” says Ochoa modestly.

Eliades Ochoa has released his most personal and innovative album to date, “Guajiro.” (Photo courtesy of Massi Giorgeschi)

“But then, my partner (author) Grisel Sande and my daughter, Evora Vicents, insisted that I could not think that way, that I had many boleros that were good, beautiful songs. Until then, when I made a record, I would include one of my songs, maybe two, but not always. I thought there was already a lot of beautiful music and no need to include my songs. But they took that idea out of my head, and I started to play them.”

More than half of the tracks in “Guajiro” are his.

The subjects and the styles cover a lot of ground, from the optimistic opening track “Vamos a Alegrar el Mundo” (“Let’s Make the World a Happier Place”), the poetic “Abrazo de Luz” (“Embrace of Light”) and “Creo en la Naturaleza,” (“I Believe in Nature”) sung with Wasser, alternating Spanish and English lyrics, to “West,” his collaboration with bluesman Musselwhite.

He wrote ‘Abrazo de Luz” while looking out a window while enduring the COVID-19 confinement.

“I was locked inside the house, and I saw that first light of the sun announcing a new day, and I just wrote down what I was thinking,” says Ochoa.

Meanwhile, “West” is partly a tribute to his childhood in Santiago de Cuba, when he saw “three Western movies for 10 cents. All those shootouts,” he says. “At first, the song was like a Western instrumental music. Cowboys on horseback would come to my mind — and later, I came up with the lyrics. Well, that’s where this thing of cowboy hats and boots comes from. I have always liked to walk with boots, and now it’s my image.”

Eliades Ochoa is one of the last surviving members of Buena Vista Social Club, the 1996 album that made him an international star. (Photo courtesy of Massi Giorgeschi)

Ochoa is one of only a handful of survivors of the Buena Vista Social recordings, and more than 25 years later, even after answering a question he was likely asked a few hundred times, he still sounds surprised by the enduring impact of those sessions.

“If one of us, one of the founders of the Buena Vista Social Club, says he knew what was going to happen, he is lying,” he says. “What we did know was that we were working for an Englishman (Nick Gold, the CEO of World Circuit Records) and an American (guitarist, composer, and producer Ry Cooder) and that what we were doing, we were doing it with respect and love. Did we think it was going to be a good record? Yes. Did we know this would be a home run with the bases full in the ninth inning? Nah. Nobody knew that.”

Looking back has its rewards, but for Ochoa, there is nothing like discussing his present.

“I feel very happy when I’m on stage and see the audience and a lot of young people,” says Ochoa. “I hear them singing the choruses of the songs on the recent albums, and you realize that they know what they are going to hear, and I like that a lot.”

WHAT: 26th Afro Roots Fest 

WHERE: Miami Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

WHEN: 8 p.m., Saturday, March 16, 8 p.m., Saturday, March 30

TICKETS: $50.47, general admission (Eliades Ochoa), $48.41, general admission (Oumou Sangaré)

INFORMATION:   (786) 453-2897 or miamibeachbandshell.com and AfroRootsFest.com

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Dont miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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