Singer - Composer - Producer
The Isla de la Juventud ("Isle of Youth"), situated about 100 kilometers south of the Havana shore, has a hallowed place in the history of Cuban music for at least two reasons. First, the musical style known as sucu sucu started there, around 1840, when the island was still called Isla de Pinos ("Isle of Pines"). And second, Kelvis Ochoa grew up there, leading to the supposition that his future was scripted for him by a press agent ("The Idol of Youth from the Isle of Youth").
Facts are facts: Kelvis Ochoa, a youthful 39 years old, is tremendously popular with young Cubans (as well as with more than a few older Cubans). His voice is as distinctive as his shock of red hair and, yes, it is the voice of a generation. Alone on stage armed with only his guitar, he can bring a crowd to its feet and keep them dancing through the night.
Kelvis lives today in the Playa district of Havana with his wife, Elba, their nine-year-old daughter, Isla, and a dog called Luna, but he hasn’t forgotten the island of his youth. "The Isla de la Juventud has one very special rhythm: sucu sucu," Kelvis explains. "Sucu sucu has more in common with calypso and other Caribbean rhythms than with cha-cha-cha, danzón, son and other rhythms born on Cuba’s big island. At parties in the countryside there – we called them ‘tumbitas criollas’ — that’s what we played, sucu sucu. It’s played with a lute and the rhythm comes from the chorus singing the same verses over and over again."
Kelvis’s father was a percussionist who had grown up accompanying his own father. "My grandfather played one of those French organs that arrived in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century," Kelvis says, "and he started a group with my father and two brothers called Estrellas de Oriente. It was incredible to wake up in the morning to see my grandfather Joaquín rehearshing on that huge organ, and I knew I wanted to be a musician when I grew up. I would go out in the neighbourhood with my friends before our bedtime, and we would play the conga tunes everybody knew from the carnivals. When the electricity in the neighbourhood would cut out, we’d make the best of it and create this party atmosphere in the street."
When his parents got divorced, Kelvis kept singing. He sang duets with his younger sister at his mother’s parties. This was at the beginning of the 1980s and he sang songs by Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés but also by Donato Póveda and Sindo Garay. For his first real concert, at an inter-school festival when he was 14, he sang a tune by the legendary sucu sucu player Mongo Rives. And there was no turning back.
"I started taking guitar lessons, skipping school," Ochoa recalls. "My parents punished me, sent me to do my military service. They wanted me to behave like a grown-up and calm down, but that didn’t really happen." He started writing poetry and setting it to music. He avoided any formal music training – he still can’t read music. He listened to nueva trova but mostly to rock and roll. "I grew up playing at parties and that’s still what I like to do. I loved playing for 5, 10 or 20 people. I was never very introverted, never into just singing by myself, I always wanted to make music for parties."
He decided to explore the world beyond the Isle of Youth — he credits another nueva trova singer, Santiago Feliú, for encouraging him in that direction — and he moved to Havana in 1992 ("alone, with my guitar"). He formed a rock band called Cuatro Gatos (Four Cats): "We wanted to be Nirvana, to sound like Pearl Jam or the Red Hot Chili Peppers."
His big break came when he crossed paths with Cuban musicians Gema Corredera and Pável Urkiza, known collectively as Gema y Pável. The pair had started to make their name as music producers, and they were going around recording all the new Cuban music they liked — and they liked Kelvis Ochoa. The resulting compilation, released in July 1996 on the Madrid-based Nubenegra label, was called Habana Oculta, and it was the first time most people outside Havana got to hear Luis Alberto Barbería, Pepe del Valle, Carlos Santos, Boris Larramendi, Superavit, Andy Villalón, José Luis Medina and Kelvis Ochoa. This led to the formation of the group that would call itself Habana Abierta; a follow-up hit record on the Spanish BMG Ariola label (Habana Abierta); the addition of two new members (Vanito Brown and Alejandro Gutiérrez); the departure of two original members (Villalón and Barbería); sold-out concerts in Spain for the rest of the 1990s; a triumphant return to Cuba in 2003 for a memorable show at La Tropical; and a documentary film directed by Jorge Perugorría and Arturo Soto.
Kelvis eventually struck out on his own (BMG Ariola released Kelvis in 2000), and wound up working with another producer plugged in to the genius of contemporary Cuban music. Descemer Bueno, who made his name writing songs and playing bass with Latin funk bands Yerba Buena and Siete Rayo, began producing Kelvis and wound up co-writing an album with him (Amor y Música, released in 2009 on Cuba’s EGREM label). The two also worked together on the music for the film Habana Blues.
Kelvis is asked if he sees any parallels between himself and another pop superstar from another Isle of Youth. "I always liked him," says Kelvis, chuckling at the idea of being compared to Elvis (Presley). "My parents used to listen to him, and I listened to him, too."
His ability to appreciate so many different kinds of music, his talent to bring this inspiration into his work and come up with a sound that’s all his own — that’s what has gone into making Kelvis Ochoa such a vital force in Cuban music today.