In 1996, the American guitarist and record producer Ry Cooder visited Cuba and became entranced by a group of local musicians, many of whom were already past retirement age. The resulting album of their music, Buena Vista Social Club (1997), produced by Cooder, sold four million copies and won a Grammy. The stars of the album were the vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (who was then aged 70), the pianist Rubén González (77) and the guitarist Compay Segundo (89), all of whom have now died. As Ferrer remarked in 1998, "I'm living the dream of my youth in the body of an old man."
Appropriately, Ibrahim Ferrer's mother went into labour during a dance at a social club in September 1927 in San Luis, a village in the province of Santiago. Both Ibrahim's parents had died by the time he was 12 and he scratched a living selling mangoes and newspapers on the streets. He sang in his cousin's group, Jovenes del Son ("Young Men of Son"), but mostly he worked as an odd-job man.
Ibrahim Ferrer's vocal talent was recognised in his twenties and he sang in several bands, eventually joining Santiago's best musicians in Orquesta Chepín-Chovén, a jazz-styled group led by Electo Rosell, known as "Chepín". Rosell composed Ferrer's biggest success, the fiery "El Platanal de Bartolo".
In 1953 Ferrer sang Cuban dance music with Pacho Alonso's group in Santiago, sometimes performing on carnival floats. They moved to Havana in 1959 and became Los Bocucos; Ferrer was to sing with them, on and off, for 34 years. He sometimes performed his own compositions, notably "De Camino a la Verada" ("Don't Stray from the Path"), which advised his listeners to lead good lives.
The Cuban revolution in 1959 brought promise of more work. Los Bocucos came to Europe in 1962 at the invitation of the Communist Party and played in France and Russia. There is a photograph of Ferrer enjoying his first experience of snow in Red Square. At a civic reception, he sat next to Khrushchev. "Imagine you've got a hedgehog in your hand" the Russian premier said to him, "What do you do?" "I'd let go of it," replied Ferrer. "Cuba is just the same," said Khrushchev, "You can't touch it." Within a few days, the Cuban missile crisis led to the stand-off between the Soviet Union and America, and Los Bocucos found that they could not return home. They remained in Russia until the blockade was lifted.
In 1965 Ferrer and his wife, Carida Diaz, moved to the poverty-stricken district of Los Sitios in Havana and raised a family of 11 children. They had pitifully few luxuries but Ferrer, a gentle soul, praised his good fortune and was proud of their working but rusted American refrigerator from the 1950s. His living room included a corner devoted to Saint Lazarus and he carried an ebony stick that had been given to his mother by a priest. He kissed the stick regularly to cherish both his love for his mother and his strong faith.
Although Cuba was improverished, Ferrer felt that the political situtation had helped Los Bocucos to improve. He said, "The music got better after the revolution because we weren't playing for tourists so much. There was a greater identification between the musicians and the audience, which was Cuban." Americans could not visit Cuba, nor Cuban musicians play in America. Effectively, Cuban music was boycotted and although there were pockets of popularity (Perez Prado, Desi Arnaz, Edmondo Ros), the music was largely forgotten or ignored.
In 1978 the musician Juan de Marcos González formed an acoustic son band, Sierra Maestra, and the success of its tours led him to consider a group which would mix generations of Cuban musicians. He discussed the concept with Ry Cooder, a great lover of Latin-American music, and the World Circuit record label agreed to finance recording sessions in Cuba in 1996.
Ibrahim Ferrer had toured Chile with Los Bocucos and he had considered these to be his final performances before he retired. However, González recommended Ferrer to Cooder, who was captivated, saying, "Everybody in Cuba can play good, but voices of Ibrahim's quality are much rarer. He's the top of the heap. There's no one else left singing that style."
Ferrer agreed to contribute to the Afro Cuban All Stars album A Toda Cuba le Gusta ("The Whole of Cuba Loves") in 1996 and then sang on the renowned Buena Vista Social Club album in 1997. The album contained a captivating bolero, "Dos Gardenias", delightfully merging Ferrer's still beautiful voice with Rubén Gonzáles's delicate piano playing. The cover photograph showed a slim Ferrer walking down a street in Havana wearing a white golfer's cap. From around the same time, there are photographs of Ferrer dancing in the street, displaying the energy of a much younger man.
The solo album Ibrahim Ferrer (1999), also produced by Cooder, showcased Ferrer's golden voice, particularly on the romantic duet "Silencio", with Omara Portuondo, and the collection sold one and a half million copies. Ferrer undertook international tours with the Buena Vista Social Club and showed himself to be a charming character on stage, his elegant dress always topped with a flat cap. In 1999, he also sang on a second album by the Afro Cuban All Stars, Distinto, Diferente ("Unique, Different").
The Buena Vista Social Club was featured in 1999 in a documentary film of the same name, directed by Wim Wenders. Wenders remarked of Ferrer, "I was completely taken by his persona and his gentleness and, without pushing for it or without doing anything himself, he turned himself into a leading character."
In 2003 Ferrer made a second album with Ry Cooder, Buenos Hermanos ("Good Brothers"). The Blind Boys of Alabama joined him for "Perfume De Gardenias". He had recorded a duet with Damon Albarn for the Gorillaz album (2001) and was even featured in a tribute to himself, "Hommage a Tonton Ferrer", with Youssou N'dour and Orchestra Baobab.
Ferrer recently undertook a month-long tour of Europe but completed the concerts in considerable pain. He was taken to hospital on his return to Havana and died shortly afterwards.
Spencer LeighReuse content