It isn't hard to like Buena Vista Social Club, the enchantingly sensual collaboration between Ry Cooder and some of Cuba's legendary-but-almost-forgotten musicians that went on to become an unexpected worldwide smash. And one of the best reasons to like the album is surely the fact that it has given the Cuban musicians involved some long-overdue recognition, and as a result we're now treated to solo albums from the principal players in the Buena Vista group. The latest of these is Eliades Ochoa, whose new disc with his group the Cuarteto Partida, Sublime Illusion, picks up right where Buena Vista left off. Ochoa is the tres guitarist and singer who left his mark all over Buena Vista Social Club (in Wim Wenders' spellbinding documentary of the same name, he was the caballero in the cowboy hat), but who has been somewhat out of the limelight compared to the phenomenal success stories of his compatriots Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez.
Though comparisons to BVSC are inevitable, there are major differences between Ochoa's vision and the sound of the whole Buena Vista group, mainly stemming from the fact that Ochoa and the Cuarteto Partida hail from the other end of the island, in Santiago. This gives Sublime Illusion a much more rural, countrified sound, and it also thrusts Ochoa's sparkling acoustic guitar and tres playing front and center. While Ochoa is a fine singer, it's his guitar work that really dazzles, like his delicious tres leads over the title track and his beautifully delicate guitar on "Volver." In fact, Ochoa is so masterful that by the time Ry Cooder sits in on the last track, "La Comparsa," it's anticlimactic: After Ochoa's fireworks, Cooder simply isn't needed. A better cameo is made by Charlie Musselwhite on "Teje Que Teje" (on which Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo also guests), where his bluesy harmonica meshes so well that he almost makes the group sound like a Cuban version of the Delta blues. It would be stretching, of course, to label Ochoa a Cuban Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton, but the similarities are there, from the masterfully picked acoustic guitar to the heartfelt traditional songs. Not that anyone will mistake Sublime Illusion, with its shouted choruses and infectious tumbao beats, for being anything but Cuban. Which, of course, is why it's so irresistible. It's unfortunate that Ochoa and his Buena Vista mates have had to wait this long for their due, but as Sublime Illusion proves, the good news is this is probably only the beginning.
Eliades Ochoa performs with Charlie Musselwhite Thursday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. at Slim's, 333 11th St., S.F. Tickets are $20; call 522-0333.