Ibrahim Ferrer is living proof that music does get better with age.
Ibrahim Ferrer is living proof that music does get better with age. Hailing from near Santiago, the same Cuban crucible that brought forth many of the island's musical genres, his mother, it is said, went into labour during a social club dance, and music, for better and worse, has marked his cards ever since. Famously plucked from the streets where he was working as a septegenarian shoe cleaner in Havana to perform on the first Buena Vista Social Club album in 1997, his speciality is Boleros - once Cuba's dominant musical form in the post-war years, and one that all but vanished into nightclub schmaltz with the ascendancy of Salsa in the mid-Sixties.
Ferrer first retired from music in 1991 after decades of working with the likes of the Cuban legends Benny More and Pacho Alonso, and never quite making it into the spotlight. He now has two successful solo albums behind him, and returns to the UK for the first of five dates, with a 17-piece orchestra that includes Roberto Fonseca on piano, guitarist and organ player Manuel Galban and trumpeter Guarjiro Mirabal.
Prowling the stage slowly in his ever-present Kangol cap, Ferrer is the embodiment of joyful, wiry resilience in the face of blind fortune, his voice perhaps less agile than it was, but age has distilled its emotional power. The musicians stretch their elastic on an opening instrumental before Ferrer's arrival to tumultuous applause, slipping into Arsenio Rodriguez' classic Son, "Bruca Manigua". A string of numbers from his latest album includes Manuel Galban's irresistible guitar lines on "Naufragio"(Shipwreck), Ferrer opening up against the band's Cuban swing. The guitar has rarely taken prominence in Cuban music, but Galban's rhythmic lead is superlative, with Ferrer's rhythm section stoking the fires underneath.
Ballads, Son, and Boleros predominate, with the likes of the exquisite "Perfume de Gardenias", a classic from a pre-war Cuba that share the same rich vintage as Ferrer himself. Trumpeter Guarjiro Mirabel takes centre stage after the interval for three sparkling numbers, before Ferrer returns with "Herido de Sombras" (A Broken Shadow) and "Como Fure" (How it Was) - achingly evocative performances that segue into a string of numbers from the new album. It is virtually played in its entirety, and the second half is almost a standing ovation as the audience finally breaks out into the aisles to dance.
Ry Cooder may have fallen foul of the Bush administration for consorting with Cubans who don't live in Miami, and one wonders how much Cuba's isolation from its neighbour has contributed to the preservation of its musical traditions. That it has brought forth the likes of Ferrer after years of obscurity, is just one of the miracles celebrated tonight. Lovers of Cuba's musical history should catch Ferrer's embodiment of that history while they can.Reuse content