Barbarito Torres's quiet laud revolution
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Barbarito Torres's quiet laud revolution

When American musician and producer Ry Cooder came knocking on Barbarito Torres' door in 1996, he ignited an artistic fire that, more than 20 years later, is still burning.

"Can you believe that!" says Torres, "Me playing my instrument, that I was sought after by an American. An American who came to Cuba holding my cassette and wanted to know what instrument this was."

Barbarito Torres with his laud, a type of lute. Through the Buena Vista Social Club "I got to play it for the world and teach people about it."

Barbarito Torres with his laud, a type of lute. Through the Buena Vista Social Club "I got to play it for the world and teach people about it."

Photo: Alejandro Gonzalez

Torres is one-fourteenth of the Afro-Cuban powerhouse Buena Vista Social Club. Born in Mantanzas, Cuba, 62-year-old Torres has been playing the laud for 52 years.

"Growing up during, or after, the revolution ... it was a normal childhood," says Torres, "I've always been the same person and that's a musician.

"I learnt music through my godfather. He taught me when I was 10 years old and in 1970, when I was 14, it began to be a career for me."

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Working his way through local radio, Torres reached the Cuban capital Havana in 1977. There he says, he was introduced to various radio and television musicians, and to them he introduced his instrument.

"Campesina ..." he says, meaning peasant, "That was my style."

And, in 1996, Torres was part of a revolution of his own; the birth of a project now world renowned, the Buena Vista Social Club.

Named after a 1940s nightclub in Havana's Buenavista quarter, the group gave a new life to Cuban music.

"Buena Vista ... all we wanted to achieve was a recording," says Torres, "to bring some great musicians together, that was our mission. We were just trying to bring two generations together. I was 42 years old when that project happened and I was in the middle of two great generations in Cuban music. When we brought this together ... it was an explosion. It was an explosion of great music and, somehow, it kept going. It is still global, people are still listening."

Produced by Cooder and directed by Juan de Marcos González, Buena Vista Social Club boomed and revived a genre close to Torres' heart.

"It revived traditional music," says Torres, "and when it did that it brought calmness to people because it was a representation of the people of Cuba. It was a representation of the musicians who were talented and virtuous, men of glory in music."

The 1996 self-titled album sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy in 1998. The album also led to the production of a feature-length documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

"You can't even imagine the success and pride I felt from this project," says Torres. "There was a lot of good work that went into this. For my instrument, it was something amazing. I got to play it for the world and teach people about it."

Now, in 2018, Torres is looking forward to his part in an all-new music fusion project, Havana Meets Kingston. The 15-piece super group of Cuban and Jamaican musicians started its Australian tour March 8 with performances in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and the WOMADelaide Festival.

"I really don't get involved in every and any project," says Torres, "but this is a fusion of two great genres and two huge cultures. Reggae has always been important and Cuban music, throughout history, has left its legacy."

Torres believes the tour is significant for its ability to "break down barriers".

"It's bringing musicians together," he says, "Musicians who are great with great music in common."

And as for the future, Torres he only sees his laud.

"For me? I will keep playing," says Torres, "while I'm healthy, while I have strength, while I'm alive I will be playing music."

Havana Meets Kingston, March 14, Enmore Theatre and the Forum, Melbourne, March 15

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