“For me, the guitar doesn’t have a secret. In the guitar, you will find everything.” These are the words of Eliades Ochoa, who has shared the versatility of the stringed instrument throughout his life. Born into a musical household in the Cuban countryside, Ochoa is a self-taught musician who has always been respected in his home country. But when Buena Vista Social Club was formed in the 1990s, the Grammy Award-winning ensemble that brought together some of Cuba’s finest musicians, Ochoa’s passion for Cuban music was introduced to millions around the world.
Ochoa takes pride in serving as an “ambassador of [Cuban] music to the world, to the planet.” Before his performance at Festival Cubano in Chicago, we talked with Ochoa about his musical upbringing, his experience playing in Buena Vista Social Club, and his advice for the next generation of musicians.
WFMT: What was your first musical memory?
EO: My origins begin in el campo [the countryside of Cuba]. My father and mother both played instruments, and in my young mind, I always listened attentively to what they would play. I kept hearing that music and interpreting it, and the sounds stayed with me.
WFMT: You taught yourself to play the guitar, which is such a versatile instrument. You can play classical, jazz, guajira of course.
EO: For me, the guitar doesn’t have a secret. In the guitar, you will find everything. It is a complete instrument.
My guitar has a sound very different than any other, because it is a creation of Eliades Ochoa. I was looking for a sound similar to the tres [a six-stringed instrument, similar to the guitar], since my music is son montuno, son guajiro, and son campesino [sub-genres of son, one of the characteristic styles of Cuban music]. So I use eight strings on my guitar instead of six strings.
WFMT: Speaking of distinct sounds, the Buena Vista Social Club has such an iconic sound. How was the group formed?
EO: In London, I was offered an opportunity to record an album with musicians from Africa that were coming to Havana. The musicians never made it to Havana! So the owner of the record company said, “Let’s do it with Cuban musicians!” The Buena Vista Social Club was founded with great artists such as Ibrahim [Ferrer], Rubén [González], Pío [Leyva], Puntillita, and me.
WFMT: What is your favorite memory with this group?
EO: My favorite memory will always be the thought that this project gave us the opportunity to be ambassadors of our music to the world, to the planet. It gives me much happiness to have been able to accomplish this.
WFMT: Not only sharing your music to the world but also through a documentary and now a movie.
When I started becoming more well-known, they made a documentary about me a few years ago [the Academy Award-nominated documentary Buena Vista Social Club]. Now, there is a film From Cuba to the World which has won many prizes in Florida, Chile, New York, and Spain. It’s being well received.
WFMT: You are performing at the Festival Cubano in Chicago, and we're very excited for this concert! What can listeners expect?
I’ll sing whatever the public wants to hear! I know that most listeners want to hear my songs that are known world-wide. I must sing my repertoire, from the songs of the Buena Vista Social Club: El Cuarto de Tula, Chan Chan. I have to sing those songs that the public knows.
WFMT: What is your advice to the next generation of musicians?
EO: In terms of Cuban music, never forget your music. It can be in any genre, but keep the essence – maintain the music.
Eliades Ochoa and the Buena Vista Social Club perform at Festival Cubano at Riis Park in Chicago on Sunday, August 11. For ticketing and information, visit thecubanfestival.com.
This interview has been translated from Spanish and lightly edited for clarity.