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Cuban Music Lesson: Eliades Ochoa

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

Every nation has its country music. Here in the U.S. we have Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and the adult contemporary crap that passes for country music these days. Country music is the stuff the poor stiffs that have to work the fields sing at the end of a hard day. In Cuba, this is the guajira-son. No one has done more to bring this particular style of Cuban music to the world than Eliades Ochoa.

You know he’s country because he wears a cowboy hat. You know he’s badass because he has a soul patch. Eliades was born in a tiny hamlet called Loma de Avispa, which means hill of the wasps. Why anyone would want to live in a place named as a warning, “Hey, that’s that hill that’s full of wasps”, is beyond us. Anyway, Eliades grew up in a family of musicians who all played guajira-son. Guajira-son is a version of the traditional son that is mashed with musica guajira. The way guajiras work is: you repeat the first two lines followed by a rhyming couplet to form the verse. This is followed by a refrain that everyone can sing along with. Eliades showed promise early on, and he moved to Havana and formed the group El Cuarteto Patria. El Cuarteto gained a big following in Cuba, and soon started touring the world.

It was during one of these overseas tours that an American blues man, Ry Cooder, was introduced to Cuban music. This set off a chain of events that would lead to The Buena Vista Social Club, of which Eliades was a member along with 4.5 million other Cuban musicians. Thanks in large part to the exposure from Buena Vista, Eliades’ subsequent albums have sold millions across the world. He is widely considered the best guajira singer in the world. Not bad for a kid from a wasp infested craphole.

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