Torres plays the laud, a lute by way of Arabia and Spain. The pear-shaped instrument, an evolution of the oud but with a shorter neck, has a warm, clear sound, similar to the higher notes of a 12-string guitar. Torres began performing on the laud when he was 10, accompanying his father, playing local folk music. In 1976, after his military service, he began traveling across Cuba, making a reputation for himself, until settling in Havana and joining the Orquestra Cubana de Cuerdas.
As both an expert and an innovator, he became one of Cuba's best-known session musicians, and one of the people Ry Cooder was searching for when he ventured to the Communist island for his historic recordings of the Afro Cuban All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club aggregations.
Mixing traditional Cuban styles like the bolero, guaracha and danzón with jazz and Latino influences, Torres is a master of fluid melodies and tasteful dissonances that resolve magically. In performance, he's even been known to throw in some Hendrix chops, playing the instrument behind his back.
Torres eventually became the musical director for singer Celina Gonzales and her Grupo Campoalegre, which played musica guajira, a Cuban version of the blues.
The mustachioed Torres, younger than some of his fellow Buena Vista partners but still no youngster, is finally enjoying the fruits of his collaborations. Lifted by the same popularity that has allowed singer Ibrahím Ferrer and other Social Club members to tour solo, Torres has taken charge of his own musical destiny. His debut solo album, Havana Cafe, features Ferrer and other Cuban stars as guests. His tour band features his wife of 15 years, Sonia Perez Cassola, and his sister, Conchita, on vocals, brother Onelia Arias on the guitar-like tres, plus horns and percussion.
Torres played in Tucson just last year in a fiery concert at Centennial Hall. Singer Ferrer will also return next January, though this time without pianist Rubén González.