Never too old to cha-cha-cha

When Ry Cooder decided to record some traditional Cuban music three years ago, he inspired two once-legendary Cuban musicians - Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez - to return to performing, and they've never looked back.
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The Independent Culture
Glasgow. Latitude of Smolensk. Attitude of Barcelona." The airport banner was more than usually apt on Wednesday, when the European Cup seemed to be the sole preoccupation of this football-crazy city. Even the photographer claimed not to know the names Ferrer and Gonzalez. "D'they play for Rangers, love?" he enquired. Not a good start.

It got worse. I arrived at the bustling headquarters of BBC Music Live to interview these two legendary musicians, along with Andy Kershaw - whose World Service World of Music series is to broadcast two special programmes of their music. Andy passed me on his way out. The interpreter had disappeared somewhere and the Cubans had gone to a different hotel, nobody knew which. But eventually Andy hove back into view clutching a pint, so we started with him.

He was looking forward to meeting them. They are right up his street; he is famous for his eclectic taste in music and his ability to be in the wrong place at the right time (as anyone who heard his radio reports from Rwanda will remember). He knows Cuba well. "When I first went there, there were only a few shops - and they might offer only a tin of peas and a pair of shoes. Now it's become a dollar economy, full of designer labels and sex tourists."

For 30 years, Cuba was isolated, its identity intensified by lack of outside influence. Then, three years ago, as things began to change, the American Ry Cooder decided to record some traditional Cuban music. At the time, the singer Ibrahim Ferrer was selling peanuts and shining shoes. Ruben Gonzalez, already 80, had given up playing - his ancient piano had succumbed to damp and woodworm, while arthritis was having a similar effect on him. Brought in off the street, he played again. The resultant CD, The Buena Vista Social Club, was a surprise hit. It sold a million copies and the renaissance began.

So what did Kershaw think of them, musically? His answer was coloured by the fact that, though the World Service is his passion, he also has a weekly Radio 1 show. "When you work for a station obsessed by 15-to- 24-year-olds, it's great to play records by octogenarians. Ruben Gonzalez has made it hip to be in your eighties."

And then they were there, two great-grandfathers with perfect manners and broad smiles. With them came several family minders and our interpreter.

Gonzalez is tiny. In an oversized grey suit, his red tie decorated with a grand piano, he has a look of Napoleon about him, with his white hair brushed forwards and an air of serene, shining confidence: even his arthritis is in retreat, vanquished by constant exercise. He has a new Polish piano - "Better than a Steinway!" he insisted - and his long, gnarled fingers are constantly moving. Indeed, so is he. "No, the touring doesn't make me tired," he said, "I love this travelling. I never want to stay still again."

Beside him, in cosy fleece and trademark flat-cap, Ferrer is but a lad. In fact, he is 72. Born at a dance and orphaned at 12, he first sang professionally at 13. By 1962, doing well, he was touring Russia and dining with Khrushchev on the night before the Cuban missile crisis broke. What did he make of Khrushchev? "Magnifico! We really took to each other. He had this lovely bald head, shiny, like it was polished." But the crisis put paid to his international career as a singer - he had thought permanently.

Now he is back, famous beyond the strictures of politics and being well- rewarded for doing what he loves best: singing bolero. The bolero, he explained, is a very slow, persuasive love song.

"I know I'm not the right age to sing it," he chuckled, "but it is for when a man falls in love with a woman and wants to conquer her, and for making peace between old friends who have fallen out, things like that. It is the best."

He has just released a solo album, already selling well, and he too is happy as a king. When the coffee comes he is delighted: "Look! This is our sugar!" He sneaks a cigarette from Ruben's son and, when asked if he wouldn't prefer a fine Havana cigar, roars with laughter: "No, I don't smoke!" What difference has this success made to his life? "Bueno, that's easy. I am having such a lovely time that I don't want to die any more."

At this point he pulled from his belt a little ebony baton, a foot long and tipped with silver. The other end bore a carving of a woman's head, decorated with silver earrings and necklaces. "I won't die," he asserted, "because I have my barrita." He has had this magic wand ever since his mother died: "I keep it carefully in remembrance of her. Nobody can hurt me when I have it. It protects me, because it is my mother; she is here, with me. Otherwise I would not be here." He was, suddenly, more than half-serious.

That night, in spite of the football, the gilded crimson interior of the King's Theatre was packed to the rafters. The band came on - big men in suits, mostly, some looking like bouncers, others like recently retired dentists. When Gonzalez appeared, the crowd erupted with delight. Shielding his eyes from the lights, smoothing his hair forward, he tottered to the piano and began to play. And it was play: he frolicked over the keys wherever his fingers took him, improvising, trilling, stretching rhythms and obeying an instinct beyond anything conveyed by such definitions as jazz or cha-cha-cha. There seemed no separation between piano and pianist. But he was fun, too. At one point he began to repeat, again and again, the same high chord and the trombonist came over and, as it were, jogged the needle.

The second half was Ferrer's. In pink cap and blazer, with shiny shoes and round glasses, his impish face belonged to a schoolboy - but his voice was a lover's, full of yearning and desire. Receiving the impact and returning the emotion was Olara Portuondo, a sturdy Cuban Cleo Laine, who soon had the whole place clapping and swaying.

After the last encore, when we all knew it had to end, performers and audience stood and moved towards each other, everyone applauding and cheering, until there was nothing but the orchestra pit to separate us. That night, Glasgow wasn't anything like Smolensk, or even Barcelona. It had become transformed, in two hours, into Old Havana.

The last concert of the tour is at the Barbican on Sunday. Box office: 0171-638 4141. `Andy Kershaw's World of Music', on BBC World Service (648khz), will broadcast two half-hour specials tomorrow and Sunday 6 June at 19.30 GMT