Buena Vista Social Club InterviewPosted on: 23 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Eliades Ochoa talks to 50connect.
The 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club is the biggest-selling world music album ever, with more than eight million records sold to date. It showcased a dream team of veterans from Cuban music's golden age and introduced the rhythms of son, bolero and danzón to a new audience making stars of Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa.
I meet guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa, now aged 62, in London, where he cuts a distinctive figure in his cowboy hat. He decides to drink water but not coffee. "So early in the morning it's not very good for the liver - rum is much better," he jokes. "I used to have a very good contact at the rum factory."
He has in fact been taking it easy on the alcohol for seven years. "If I am forced to do it then I do it, but I feel good the way I am now, with drinking in the past."
There's surely enough Cuban spirit in the music that made Buena Vista Social Club a worldwide phenomenon.
Eliades was involved in the project from the start. In 1996 producer and guitarist Ry Cooder and producer Nick Gold planned to record a collaboration of African and Cuban musicians, but the two Mali musicians did not get visas. This apparent disaster turned out to be a stroke of luck, when the organisers decided instead to record an album of local Cuban music.
"It's thanks to the unforeseen changes that Buena Vista actually was the success that it was," believes Eliades. "Juan de Marcos González decided to put together 50 musicians to create the Buena Vista Social Club."
Never a regular band, they came together for ten days in a studio in Havana to record an album and then went their separate ways. Some of them were touring the world with Juan de Marcos González and his Afro-Cuban All Stars. Omara Portuondo had her own busy schedule and, so, too, did Ry Cooder. Others, such as Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa, had their own touring bands.
"Some of us were doing rather well. Nick Gold from World Circuit Records already knew about me and we met in London where I was playing a concert, so he had licenced some of my music and it had had some success. Nick told me about the project and I was very happy with the whole thing."
For the older musicians in their eighties such as Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González and Compay Segundo, whose success had been mainly before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Buena Vista was genuinely life changing.
"I heard about Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo before the revolution. They had a good history and career and exported Cuban music all around the world. But by the time the Buena Vista Social Club project happened they had pretty much gone."
"Most of those five star musicians were no longer playing. They were retired. Some of them were actually rather struggling and had little money. To be honest we were not sure whether they were alive or dead."
So it was truly felicitous that Buena Vista Social Club happened.
"I think there's a day happiness knocks on your door and that was one of the days. There were all these guys who were not doing very much, I don't know why not. Having these five star artists - the best - made the CD's success possible. They allowed this to happen, as their experience was huge."
"The only thing necessary was commercialisation, getting everybody together and throwing them to the world, and that's what happened. We hit a home run, as we say in Cuba - a goal in the very last second! It really opened the doors of the world to Cuba and its music. It was an awakening."
In any corner of the world today you find Cuban music, thanks to Buena Vista Social Club. It hooked listeners with its rhythms, richness and beauty, and songs such as Chan Chan became classics.
"None of us, not myself or my comrades, knew what we were getting involved in. Everything changed. Before Buena Vista we used to do 20 concerts and after Buena Vista we were doing 100 concerts."
All the Buena Vista musicians played together again in April 1998 for two nights in Amsterdam, and the complete original band played a one-off show at New York's Carnegie Hall on 1st July 1998. Due to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, most of the musicians had never been to America let alone played the Carnegie Hall and the night was an event and a celebration as much as a concert performance.
"You had to have a really hard heart and be very strong not to cry. There were a few moments in which our legs started failing us because the emotion - the joy - was too much. We couldn't feel our legs - they couldn't hold us."
After that night, it was clear there would not be another concert. Busy schedules kept the individual musicians touring and recording with their own projects, the brief window of opportunity for U.S. shows closed with the renewing of political hostilities and sadly within a few years a number of Buena Vista's leading stars including Rubén González, Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer had passed away. However the group will live on through its music, according to Eliades.
"The Buena Vista Social Club will never die. It would be nearly impossible to replace, but it has grown huge, healthy roots. For many decades to come when people mention the Buena Vista Social Club we'll know what they are talking about. It's music that doesn't expire, and it can give lots of instruction to lots of people."
"I can die in peace because I know that I've reached the climax of my music career. I feel so good, happy, professionally realised and mature. I'm convinced that if I hadn't been born for Buena Vista it probably would have been better not to be born at all. Nothing would have made me feel as fulfilled."
Wim Wenders' 1999 documentary, also called Buena Vista Social Club, preserved the group and its music for posterity.
The climax of the film features some of the Carnegie Hall show, but until now, apart from those moments, the music from that night has only ever been heard by the lucky few who were there. Now the legendary concert is available for the first time in a two CD set. The recording of that historic night is only the second release by the original band.
Despite Eliades' sense of fulfilment and the new Buena Vista CD, he still has musical aspirations. He's about to work with African artists, to record the album planned over a decade ago.
"What I was going to do in 1996, I'm going to do now. We are going to go ahead with the project planned when we first signed the contract for Buena Vista, which I'm looking forward to. There are lots of genres of Cuban music, but I expect the Cuban son with this African music is going to be something amazing and very powerful."
Eliades has already collaborated with several artists of other music genres, including the 1998 album CubAfrica and the 2004 song Hemingway with Dutch band Bløf.
"I don't think music has either borders or flags or language - it's a unique language itself. I made a CD with Manu Dibango, an African musician. The Africans normally adapt to what we do in Cuba. As with Ry Cooder, we didn't have to do what he was ordering or asking. Instead he adapted to us."
Music hooked Eliades almost at birth, and he is still playing the tres, a Cuban guitar, today.
"When I got a notion that there was the living world around me, the first thing I noticed was my mum and my dad playing the tres. That music I heard 60 years ago was in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of the eastern part of Cuba, and it is the same that I'm still playing today."
He did not plan his international career, but always wanted to play the guitar. Already famous when he travelled from Cuba for the first time aged 35, to tour the Caribbean for a year in 1981, he went out to Santiago and played to packed houses.
"When I was seven I was just happy to be able to play the guitar. By the time I was 15 or 16 then I was listening to all these old guys - Compay, Ibrahim - and I really wanted to be like them."
"I don't like programming my life, I like pleasure in my life. I would listen to advice from friends and family but I like to decide on my own, and I have a band of my own."
"There are some people who dream and never awake - they never see a dream realised. It's the lucky people that can dream and see the realisation of their dreams, and I was one of them. Sometimes in life things like Carnegie Hall happen."
Eliades believes in taking advantage of such opportunities because, as the British proverb says, 'Be happy while you're living, for you're a long time dead.'
"I'm not afraid of dying, but what I don't like is the time I have to be dead. You have to squeeze today to the maximum because it may be the last day you ever live. The reality is that we are all born and die, as one song says, so live life to the full every day - the little span of life that you have on this earth."
By Cherry Butler
You can purchase Buena Vista Social Club At Carnegie Hall at all good record stores or online from Amazon for £8.98.
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