He began playing the guitar when he was six and in 1978 he joined Cuarteto Patria, a band that has played since 1940. His roots are in guajira (Cuban country music) and he still wears his trademark cowboy hat. He plays the tres, and also a variant called cuatro (with two additional strings). His involvement with the Buena Vista Social Club and the Wim Wenders film of the same name, has led him to worldwide fame.
In 1998 he recorded the album CubAfrica with Manu Dibango, in 1999 the album Sublime Ilusión, and in 2004 he recorded the song Hemingway with the Dutch band Bløf, which appeared on their 2006 album Umoja.