Clip: Ibrahim Ferrer
Ibrahim Ferrer, 1927-2005: An appreciation
August 8, 2005
BY LAURA EMERICK Staff Reporter
Ibrahim Ferrer, the great Cuban sonero who died Saturday at age 78 in Havana, liked to recall the lyrics of a song called "Cuando Me Toca a Mi," which asked, "When will it be my turn?"
That song, which Ferrer adopted early in his career, proved to be prophetic: "If not next year, then maybe in the year 2000."
But the prophecy was off by a few years. After decades of obscurity, the septuagenarian Ferrer found fame in the mid-'90s as part of the Buena Vista Social Club, a loosely knit collective dedicated to the revival of traditional Cuban styles, especially son, guajira and bolero, which fell out of favor after the Cuban revolution.
In the liner notes of his latest solo release, the Grammy-winning "Buenos Hermanos" (2003), Ferrer celebrated his incredible reversal of fortune: "Special thanks go to my wonderful fans, to all those people whose affection has made this [rebirth] possible ... who would have guessed it would finally be my turn?"
With his spectacular revival, Ferrer represented all the unsung stars of tropical Latin music, who had toiled during the golden age of Cuban music in the '40s and '50s, only to be largely forgotten in the following decades.
His rebirth was especially poignant because he had given up music, and was living on a small pension and shining shoes in Havana. "I had felt disappointed by my life in music until then," he said in a 2003 interview with the Sun-Times, even though his credits included stints in Orquesta de Chepin and ensembles led by the legendary Beny More and Pacho Alonso. But in all these groups, Ferrer found himself pushed to the background. Though his voice could be heard, he often was not credited on the records.
"There was the name of the bandleader, the group, the songwriter, but never the singer," he recalled.
So with great reluctance, Ferrer came out of retirement in 1996 for the Buena Vista project. "I didn't want to go," he said in the 2003 interview. "But he [Buena Vista music director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez] kept on, until I finally agreed. I told him that I had to go home first, to wash up, and he said, 'No, the session is going on right now.'"
And so Ferrer finally got his turn -- and belated recognition as one of the greatest vocal interpreters of Cuban music. American musician Ry Cooder, who produced the Buena Vista projects along with World Circuit label chief Nick Gold and Juan de Marcos, repeatedly would insist about Ferrer, "He's the top of the heap. There's no one else left singing in that style."
In a 2003 interview with the Sun-Times, Cooder noted, "Neglect kills music. Ibrahim Ferrer is the poster boy of the neglected musician. He likes to say, 'My life has been returned to me.' That spirit radiates out in his music."
His voice, reedy yet imploringly beautiful, conveyed the romantic essence of the bolero, the style he claimed was closest to his heart. His intensely emotional renditions of Cuban standards such as "Como Fue," "Dos Gardenias" and "Silencio," from the Buena Vista discs, underscore that assessment.
Despite his affinity for the bolero, Mr. Ferrer said bandleaders used to tell him "it's not for you," he recalled. "Back then, boleros were sung by people with bigger voices. But I always loved boleros."
Organized by Cooder, Gold and de Marcos, the Buena Vista Social Club became an international phenomenon, spawning sold-out tours, award-winning albums and an Oscar-nominated documentary. Ferrer joined his Buena Vista mates guitarist Compay Segundo and pianist Ruben Gonzalez in becoming breakout stars. They preceded him in death in 2003.
Ferrer, who suffered from emphysema, had just completed a monthlong tour of Europe, including a stop at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival. His wife, Caridad Diaz, told the AFP news agency that he was admitted with gastroenteritis Wednesday to a Havana hospital, where he died Saturday of multiple organ failure. He will be buried today in Havana.
Of his rediscovery in his twilight years, Ferrer said, "Everywhere I go, I find the same thing, such a warm reception to my singing. That's the best memory I have."
After the huge popularity of "The Buena Vista Social Club" (1997), which won a Grammy, and the related disc "A Toda Cuba Le Gusta" (1997) by the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, Ferrer went on to record his first solo disc at age 70. That album, "Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer" (1999), brought him a Latin Grammy for best new artist in 2000. "Buenos Hermanos," also produced by Cooder and featuring many of his Buena Vista mates, received a Grammy for best traditional tropical Latin album in 2004.
But his Grammy success pulled him into the ugly realm of politics. Because of a Bush administration crackdown on Cuban artists, Ferrer was denied a visa to attend the 2004 Grammys. For the same reason, he had to cancel a 2004 appearance at the Ravinia Festival.
"He was devastated that he was not allowed to collect his Grammy in person," said Mike Orlove, program director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which has presented many Latin artists over the years. "Politics were not part of what he was about. But it kept him from getting the biggest accolade of his life. As much of a role he played for Cuban music worldwide, he couldn't even get to the U.S. to accept his award, which was really a travesty."
Though Ferrer was a master interpreter of the bolero and son, what made him special, Orlove said, is that "he literally made you want to be part of the music. His performance was so much more than being a singer. He just carried this personality onstage. His smile resonated through the whole building. When he sang with [fellow Buena Vistan] Omara Portuondo [in 1999 at the Chicago Theatre], it was as if time had stopped. They were two people doing it for the love of the music, and nothing else."
Fittingly, Ferrer's next disc, which he had already recorded and planned to release next year, will be a collection of boleros titled "Mis Suenos" ("My Dreams").
DISCOGRAPHY RECOUNTS A REJUVENATED CAREER
Until his rebirth as part of the Buena Vista Social Club, much of Ibrahim Ferrer's recorded legacy lay largely forgotten in the vaults of Egrem, the Havana-based state-run label. Along with the Buena Vista discs, here are some of his best collections:
"Buena Vista Social Club" (1997, World Circuit/Nonesuch): The album that launched a musical revolution of sorts. Produced by Ry Cooder and Nick Gold, and organized by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, it revitalized the careers of several veterans of Cuba's golden age. Ferrer appears on 12 of the disc's 14 tracks, most notably the boleros "Dos Gardenias" and "Murmullo."
"Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer" (1999, World Circuit/Nonesuch): Ferrer's first official solo disc, recorded at age 70. The liner notes rightly announce: "With the release of this album, the world can hear the full extent of a talent only previously glimpsed at."
"Mis Tiempos Con Chepin" (2002, Magada): This compilation showcases Ferrer during his '50s-'60s stint with the orchestra of Electo "Chepin" Rosell; Ferrer recalls in the liner notes: "Of all the orchestras I have been fortunate enough to sing with, Rosell's remains one of my favorites. What an orchestra that was!"
"La Colleccion Cubana" (2002, Nascente): This British import collects tracks that Ferrer recorded with Los Bocucos, an offshoot of Cuban great Pacho Alonso's ensemble, during the '60s and '70s.
"Hecho en Cuba, Vols. 1-3" (2002-04, Escondida/Isba): More vintage tracks from the Egrem vaults, featuring Ferrer alongside Buena Vista mates Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portundo and others.
"Buenos Hermanos" (2003, World Circuit/Nonesuch): Ferrer's second solo disc, once again produced by Ry Cooder, finds him backed by Buena Vista regulars such as guitarist Manuel Galban, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez and pianist Chucho Valdes. But amidst all these stars, Ferrer reigns supreme, whether evoking sorrow on "Mil Congojas" ("A Thousand Arrows"), or celebrating life's joys on "Boliviana."
"Ay, Candela" (2005, Escondida): This first of a 10-volume "Cuban Essentials" series, dedicated to that country's diverse output of the last 50 years, features Ferrer in favorites ("Ay, Candela") and rarities ("Una Fuerza Immensa," reportedly the only bolero that he recorded solo before 1996). All 14 tracks, which pre-date his Buena Vista fame, affirm his own self-analogy: "a Cuban rum melodiously aged by life."