Ibrahim Ferrer: Bolero Ultimo

Simon Lee remembers Ibrahim Ferrer, the honey-voiced Cuban singer who leaped to fame after he starred on the Buena Vista Social Club album

  • Ibrahim Ferrer recording a duet with Omara Portuondo. Photograph by Donata Wenders/Courtesy

The voice of a 20th-century Caribbean dream finally fell silent back in August, when the 78-year-old Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer died within days of returning from his latest European tour.

Even those who do not know his name may recognise his soft, honey-dipped, “caressing Caribbean breeze” delivery. In the space of a few months in the late 1990s, Ferrer became the official voice of the Buena Vista Social Club, a phenomenon which built on Cuba’s already legendary romantic cachet, launching a bunch of senior citizens to Grammy award-winning status and World Music stardom, reviving the golden age of traditional Cuban forms like son, bolero, and guaracha, which had been languishing since the revolution.

There are elements of irony and pure chance in the whole Buena Vista bolero, which heighten its poignancy and which Santeria devotee Ferrer — whose santo was Babalu-Aye or San Lazaro, comforter of the poor and sick — surely appreciated. It took American blues slide guitarist Ry Cooder (already famous for such cross-cultural projects as Talking Timbuktu with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure and The River with Indian guitarist V.M. Bhatt) to kickstart the process, when his plan to record Malian and Cuban musicians together fell through.

Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (a gifted tres player, composer, and arranger, whose Sierra Maestra group, founded in 1976, had revived young Cubans’ interest in acoustic son at a time when pop, rock, and funk vied with nueva trova as the soundtrack of the revolution) had assembled the Afro Cuban Allstars when Ry Cooder arrived in Havana in 1996. Among the veterans in the studio were 89-year-old guitarist and singer Compay Segundo, 75-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and 69-year-old Ferrer.

Ferrer was supplementing a meagre state pension shining shoes outside his tiny apartment in fading Old Havana when Juan de Marcos approached him. “I didn’t want to go, but he kept on until I finally agreed. I told him I had to go home first and wash up, and he said, ‘No, the session is going on right now.’ ” When he did get to the studio — unwashed — he found arthritic Ruben Gonzalez at the piano and launched into an improvised racy son, Candela, followed by the achingly beautiful slow-paced bolero Dos Gardenias Para Ti. Ry Cooder, listening in, was astonished; he recorded both tracks, and the rest became a postmodern romantic myth which captured the hearts and ears of the world.

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“It was the last chance to work with such a voice,” Cooder realised. He regarded Ferrer as a “lost link with Cuba’s Golden Age”. Following the Grammy-award success of the initial Buena Vista Social Club album (which has sold seven million copies and continues to ride high in world music charts), Ferrer, who had rarely even been credited on the many previous albums he’d sung on in his long career, found himself launching his first solo album in 1999, aged 72, and winning another Grammy for it.

His shy humility, captured so well in the Wim Wenders BVSC documentary, remained as intact as his voice. “I didn’t want to do it, because I’d given up on music. But now I have my own record, my first ever, so I’m very happy. I don’t have to shine shoes any more.” Not only could he give up shoe-shining, he got to sing bolero, the style closest to his heart since his childhood in Oriente.

Ferrer was literally born into music, “with rhythm in his blood”, on 20 February, 1927, when his mother went into premature labour at a social club dance in San Luis, near Santiago in eastern Cuba. With its legacy of congo music mixed with the tumba francesa influence of Haitians and the Spanish-derived guajira of the peasants, this area was the cradle of son music — one of the first truly popular Afro-Creole forms in the Caribbean — and Ferrer grew up hearing tango, son, and mambo, and playing rumba with bottle and spoon at the social club dances in his grandfather’s house.

Orphaned at 12, he struggled to make a living selling peanuts and singing on the streets of Santiago, instinctively slowing down the upbeat son he heard into the distinctive lilting bolero style he loved. By age 14, he was singing in his cousin’s group, before graduating to local bands Conjuntos Casino and Sorpresa, and Maravilla Beltran. Joining singer Pacho Alonso’s band in 1953, he went on to have an uncredited 1955 hit, El Planatal de Bartolo, with the Orquesta Chepin-Choven. It was on the strength of this success that he headed to Havana, where he became backing vocalist for Beny More, el barbaro del ritmo, who is still revered as Cuba’s greatest singer ever.

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It was probably the unnecessary comparison with More’s powerful delivery and charismatic style which led to attempts to dissuade Ferrer from singing bolero — “Back then, bolero was sung by people with bigger voices,” he said — and it seemed that a song he sang in this period, Cuando Me Toca A Mi, might remain his signature tune. Returning to Alonso’s band, now renamed Los Bucocos, he toured with them in the early 1960s to Paris and Moscow, meeting Khrushchev on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis.

During the ensuing American boycott and economic decline, Ferrer turned to a variety of jobs to support his growing family — docker, builder, and even lottery-ticket-seller (like another grand old man of Caribbean song, Trinidadian calypsonian Roaring Lion) — before rediscovery, fame, and fortune beckoned with BVSC. Luckily for the rest of the world, he finally began to sing again, and record the boleros so close to his heart.