RABAT (Reuters Life!) - Eliades Ochoa took up the guitar aged six and by 11 was already busking in a red light district of Santiago de Cuba to help support his family.
He worked as a radio station musician in the 1960s before becoming leader of Cuarteto Patria, a group founded in 1939 that championed Cuba’s traditional “son” style, combining Spanish song with African rhythms.
Ochoa, 62, found wider fame from 1997 when he took part in Buena Vista Social Club, a music project named after a 1940s Havana club. The resulting album produced by Ry Cooder won a Grammy and led to a world tour and a film by German director Wim Wenders.
He spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of the Mawazine world rhythms festival in the Moroccan capital Rabat which runs until May 23.
Q: How does your music reflect life in today’s Cuba?
A: I transmit the joy of Cuban music. I am 150 percent Cuban and that means a way of life, a joy of living.
Q: What has changed about your music since you began playing?
A: Look, I’ve only been playing for 55 years! I have played the same way in all that time. When I opened my eyes to the world I found my mother and father playing the same music that I play today. Everything I have, I have it thanks to the past.
Q: Is that strong sense of tradition part of the reason why “son” has found such success around the world?
A: As long as I play the same music that was played in the 19th century, then my future is assured. My future belongs to the past. Most music today is transient. But the wealth and tradition of Cuban music is here to stay. Wherever we play, the room is full, even though people know exactly what they’re going to hear. The other reason for the success of Cuban music is its richness and harmony.
Q: Is there a risk that as Cuba changes, the musical tradition could weaken?
A: It’s impossible. Something that has existed for centuries cannot be altered in 24 hours. Let us hope that, with the arrival of (U.S. President Barack) Obama, Cuban music opens more to the world. People in the United States are crazy about Cuban groups. I’ve done nine tours in the U.S. and visited 29 states. Let us hope that new Cuban artists will now have a chance to show the world their talent.
Q: What was the most important influence on your music?
A: Firstly, my mother and father when I was youngest. It was more like being in a music club than in a house.
Then there’s the public and the strength it gives me. It’s the joy and smiles of the crowd that inspire me to continue my work.