Oh yes, my life has changed completely since Buena Vista Social Club, says Eliades Ochoa, a stocky man with rings on his fingers, graying hair, a heavy face. When we talked, it had already been a couple of years since the album and film took him from folkloric singer to international star with black hat and guitar singing Chan Chan and Pintate los labios, Maria, the song they made into an animated video seen everywhere. Life-changing years Now people recognized him in Europe and Japan .
Now, even in Cuba, kids follow me down the street singing, Pintate los labios … Eliades is amused, but uncomfortable.
I’m not used to all this attention. I’m just a simple musician, un guajiro sin mayores complicaciones, who just likes to play and sing for people. No, no me acostumbro a esto, seguro que no.
It’s the hat, I tell him. Debe ser el sombrero.
Bueno, OK, I know. But I can’t go out without my hat. Without it, I’m not myself, no soy yo, I don’t even recognize myself without mi sombrero tejano.
Fame has brought Eliades many things. Con oro todo es possible, he jokes, but it didn’t buy what he wanted most, the recognition he never got from Compay Segundo, dead now like other companeros in the film Compay, the best singer and songwriter, the one Eliades rescued from obscurity in the 1980s, long before Ry Cooder; but Compay never spoke of this, one of Eliades’s many efforts to preserve his traditional Cuban music, his life’s mission.
That still hurts. Eliades frowns. He doesn’t want to talk about the Buena Vista Social Club. It wasn’t Ry Cooder who discovered Compay, not Columbus who discovered the New World, it was Eliades who brought him back, all from love for his country’s music.
So even at the height of his fame, when Cuban musicians traveled the U.S. freely, Eliades never moved to Spain or the U.S., never chose gold over culture. Eliades always knew who he was.
I never went to any kind of school, says one of seven children of farmers who moved to Santiago, where Eliades started playing on the streets for pennies until the Revolution changed everything, and he came of age in a world where culture and music were honored.
I was given a radio show, a salary, clothing, food coupons, he remembers. For the first time, I felt like I was worth something.
He didn’t tell that to me, though, when I asked him about the Revolution. Instead he told a Mexican journalist, in Mexico. It’s always wise to be careful, he’s learned, living in Cuba. He didn’t need a school to teach him that. Or how to play guitar.
I opened my eyes, he says, and there was la guaracha, el son, la guajira, el changuii, the music of my parents. And that was all the music I ever needed.
The Lion of Santiago, they called him in those days of struggle to revive his country’s traditional music, when others of his generation turned their ears to the power of the North.
I recognized the torrent of life that ran through it, he says, un manatial, a well-spring, an inexhaustible mine. And down he went, to rescue it from the dustbin of history, he says: Eliades Ochoa fue al cajon del olvido y empezo a sacar cosas bellas de alli.
Yes, he shook the dust off and polished them up, he says, and then those songs won a Grammy. For Ry Cooder, in America, where the money resides. But Eliades never defected, though others did. Baseball stars and musicians like Arturo Sandoval, with big homes near Tiger and Shaq, playing their music at Disney World.
No, Eliades stayed. But it was not a political decision.
No somos politicos, he says, we aren’t politicians, we are musicians who play for the people. Flesh and blood, we belong to the human race. I don’t carry a rifle, I carry a guitar. I’m not going to make a speech, I’m going to sing un bolero de amor .
Singing of love, Eliades traveled the world, but he always returned to sit on his porch, to talk to his neighbors. The Revolution was made for people like Eliades, marked by the rhythms of their city, the light that falls across the fields in the late afternoon . marked by the beat of son, music born in Santiago, where Eliades played and sang on the streets for pennies before the Revolution that changed his life more profoundly than the fame of Pintate los labios, more profoundly than Chan Chan ever could . Why he stayed .
I don’t carry a rifle, I carry a guitar. I’m going to sing un bolero de amor .