Eliades Ochoa – Guajiro: Album review

Buena Vista Social Club original returns with more irresistible Son Cubano.  Featuring a few special guests…

Release Date:  26th May 2023

Label: World Circuit

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital

Well – he’s back.  Just a few short months – seven, in fact – since we were wowed by the extended reissue of his 2020 album, Vamos a Bailer un Son, Buena Vista Social Club original member, vocalist and guitarist par excellence, Eliades Ochoa, returns to serve up another delicious portion of his signature Son Cubana.  And this time, he’s brought along a few heavyweight mates along to join the fun.

But first, let’s recap.  Eliades Ochoa is a major talent.  He was a member – the youngest one, in fact – of the original Buena Vista Social Club and featured on the collective’s seminal, eponymous, 1997 album.  Indeed, he was a major presence on that wonderful album – lead vocalist on tracks such as the album’s opener, Chan Chan, El Cuarto de Tula, El Carretero and Candela – as well as contributing many of the fluid, dexterous acoustic guitar parts that are such a distinguishing feature of the album.  But, even before BVSC, he’d been a key figure on the Cuban music scene, leading Cuarteto Patria – Cuba’s leading band – for 18 years.  His rugged appearance, along with his signature hat and cowboy boots have earned him the nickname of “Cuba’s Johnny Cash,” he’s won four Latin Grammys and he’s appeared on over 40 albums, including nine in his own name.

And now, twenty-six years on from the world-shattering Buena Vista Social Club, Eliades is back with a new collection of songs, mostly his own compositions, to remind us all of why we were so excited by Cuban music in the first place.  Elides considers the material on Guajiro (the title is the Cuban Spanish word for “Peasant”) to be amongst the most personal and intimate that he’s ever produced “The album tells a lot about me and my history,” he says, “It’s really the story of my life and each song has a lot of meaning.”

Now, I don’t speak much Spanish, and, it’s at times like this that I wish that I did.  It is, of course, a wonderfully musical language, even when it isn’t understood by the listener.  But, with the aid of our old friend Google Translate, it’s a relatively easy task to take the titles of the songs on Guajiro and have a reasonable stab at what it is that Eliades is singing about.  For example, opening track Vamosa Alegrar El Mundo translates as “Let’s brighten the world,” and the lively salsa rhythms of the song seem to do just that.  The title of the album’s second track, Soy Guajiro, means “I am a peasant,” and the song is a delightful slice of Cuban folk – almost a read-over from the BVSC days – with Eliades sharing vocal duties with his female backing vocalists as he peppers the song with some truly wonderful bursts of 8-string guitar.

The musical formula is pretty well consistent throughout Guajiro.  The percussion is soft and shuffling, with lots of maracas to emphasise the Cuban roots, and, apart from the simple, plodding double bass that is such a warming feature of most of the tunes here, that’s all that’s needed to point the spotlight firmly towards Eliades, his wonderful guitar, and the contributions of his guests.

Eliades takes the vocal lead on every song; his experience and maturity is reflected in his voice nowadays, but the energy, passion and commitment that he puts into every song belies his 76 years of age.  But, as always with an Eliades Ochoa album, it’s the guitar parts that truly take away one’s breath.  Eliades has been playing guitar for over 70 years – he’s a true master of the acoustic guitar in both its 6-string and 8-string variants – and it’s clear from listening to Guajiro that not a single day of that experience has been wasted.  There’s a breathtaking solo in just about every song on the album, yet never is Eliades’ playing ever “showy” for the mere sake of it.  No, his playing is melodic and adventurous and never fails to add an extra dimension to the song.

And – we’ve not even got around to talking about those special guests yet..

Joan Wasser – better known as Joan As Police Woman – is the first to chip in, with the album’s only English language vocal, on Creo En La Naturaleze (“I believe in nature.”)  Joan and Eliades swop lead vocal parts on a soft tango, and it works a treat.

Next up, Panamanian singer, actor and activist Rubén Blades adds vocals, maracas and guitar on the irresistible Pajarito Voló (“A little bird flew”), a song that, with its Latin rhythms and splashes of Mariachi brass, is a great example of the very best of Cuban music.

Eliades’ final guest is long-term collaborator Charlie Musselwhite, who plays some delicious blues harmonica on West, a fascinating amalgam of Cuban lyricism and raw Mississippi blues.

The highlights on Guajiro are almost too numerous to list, but I particularly enjoyed Ando Buscando Una Nova, a lively gallop with a Mexican feel – especially when the raucous brass section cuts in.  Abrazo de Luz, a romantic-sounding song – includes what may just be the album’s most outstanding piece of guitar work as Eliades combines amazingly deft fingerwork with a vibrato technique that needs to heard to be believed, whilst, on closing track Los Ejes de Mi Carreta (“The axles of my cart,”) Eliades gives his bassist the space to stretch out with a jazzy solo that perfectly complements yet another of his gobsmacking guitar parts.

But, just maybe, the single high point of this tremendous album is Se Soltó Un Léon (“A lion was released,” according to good old Google), a tune that combines every single ingredient – shuffling rhythms, virtuoso guitar, repeated vocal messaging, sleazy sax and lashings of jazzy brass – to come up with the perfect Cuban banquet. 

Guajiro is an absolute delight, and, if once you’ve given it a listen, you develop an irresistible urge to get out and shake a few limbs to the best Cuban music you’re likely to hear anywhere in the world, then you may be pleased to know that Eliades Ochoa will be touring Europe this summer/ autumn.  Alongside dates in France, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands, Morocco, Denmark, Italy and Latvia, Eliades will be playing the Manchester Jazz Festival at Band on the Wall on 28th May and at Camden’s Koko on 29th October.  Full details are available on the Home page of Eliades’ website.

Watch the official video to Se Soltó Un Léon, one of the outstanding tracks from Guajiro, here:

Find Eliades Ochoa online: Official Website / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

If you would like to keep up with At The Barrier, you can like us on Facebook here, follow us on Twitter here, and follow us on Instagram here. We really appreciate all your support.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.