Ferrer, Ibrahim 1927–
Ibrahim Ferrer 1927–
Ibrahim Ferrer is a veteran Cuban soneros (singer and improviser) whose music career had languished for thirty years when he was invited to perform on the 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club and found himself rediscovered by a whole new generation of music lovers around the world. His plaintive and expressive voice, deft improvisa-tional skill, and unrivaled expertise in the classic bolero (romantic ballads) of pre-revolutionary Cuba has been showcased on two best-selling solo recordings, and his newfound status as international sensation was confirmed by winning Best New Artist at the 2000 Latin Grammy Awards, at the age of 73.
Music was part of Ferrer’s life from the moment of his birth; he was famously born at a dance in Santiago, Cuba, on February 20, 1927. “My mother was pregnant and when the music began, she started having contractions,” he told Newsweek in May of 2003. “I think I was even singing inside her belly.” His mother gave him a Muslim name, he said in a 2001 interview with the Daily Telegraph, because she “was fascinated by Arabia,” but his ethnic heritage was African, French, Spanish and Chinese. His father, a musician and bohemian, “was one of those people who played guitar and sang,” Ferrer recalled in a 2001 interview with the Austin City Limits website. “There were a lot of parties in my house.”
Ferrer’s mother died when he was twelve years old, and he was forced to leave school in order to find ways to support himself. At the age of thirteen, following his late father’s example, Ferrer began performing as a singer. Eastern Cuba, where Ferrer grew up, was the birthplace of Cuban son, the distinctive range of “tropical” sounds and rhythms that meld African and Spanish influences. In 1941 Ferrer’s cousin, Jose Coba, asked him to help him form a band, Los Jóvenes del Son, and perform that night at a New Year’s Eve party; they soon found other low-paying gigs around Santiago. “It was to make a living, even if it was just fifty cents,” Ferrer told Austin City Limits. He also performed with other local bands, including Conjunto Sorpresa, Conjunto Wilson and Pancho Alonso’s Maravilla de Beltran. Passionate about music, Ferrer had to scramble to make money however he could. “I sold
At a Glance…
Born on February 20, 1927, in Santiago, Cuba; married Caridad (Cachin) Díaz Surita; seven children.
Career: Singer and songwriter, 1940s-90, 1997–; performed with local bands including Los Jóvenes del Son, Conjunto Sorpresa, Conjunto Wilson and Pancho Alonso’s Maravilla de Beltran, 1940s-1950s; backing vocalist for Beny Moré and Banda Gigante, 1950s; toured Europe with Los Bocucos, 1960s; retired from musical career, 1990s; performed on Buena Vista Social Club, 1997; solo recording artist, 1999s star of Wim Wenders’ documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, 1999.
Awards: Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist, 2000.
Addresses: Home —Havana, Cuba.
peanuts and shined shoes to earn a living, but I was always singing.”
In 1953, Ferrer became the singer for Pacho Alonso’s band, which became known as Los Bocucos, remaining a member for more than 20 years. But bandleaders, not singers, were the dominant stars of the period. Ferrer had a hit record, “El Platanar de Bartolo,” with the Orquesta Chepin-Chóven, but wasn’t credited on the recording. As a black performer, Ferrer was paid less than white counterparts. And although his musical influences included Nat King Cole, and legendary Cuban bolero singers like Eliseo Silveira and Maria Teresa Vera, bandleaders steered him towards upbeat styles; his voice wasn’t considered big enough for emotive bolero.
Yet Ferrer was a versatile performer, and he became a well-known figure in Cuba’s music scene, moving to Havana in 1959 and performing as backing vocalist for the great Beny Moré, creator of the Cuban big band sound, and his Banda Gigante. However, after the 1959 revolution, which installed Fidel Castro’s communist government, Havana’s fertile music scene declined, deprived of affluent tourists in its nightclubs, hotels, and casinos. Like many other performers at the time, Ferrer was forced to make his living working on the docks or as a construction worker. In addition, the public appetite for the refined sound of bolero was waning: salsa was the new popular music. “If I could not sing boleros,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in a 2003 interview, “I didn’t want to sing.”
Ferrer continued to perform at night with Los Bocucos, hoping to build his career up again. “When I was younger I thought I was going to travel the world with my music,” Ferrer is quoted as saying on the VH1 website. “The only chance I got was when I came to Europe in 1962. Then there was the missile crisis. I played in Paris and Eastern Europe with Pacho Alonso’s orchestra and then I was stuck in Europe. I had to stay until everything settled down again before I could go home. Then nothing happened for thirty-five years.”
By the 1990s, Ferrer had retired from singing altogether, living off a small state pension supplemented by money earned selling lottery tickets and shining shoes. He became a familiar face on the streets of the Cayo Hueso barrio of Old Havana, a slight figure and nimble figure, easily recognized because of his ever-present Kangol cap. At that point, Ferrer had not performed on a major recording project since the 1960s. His singing career appeared to be over.
In 1996 the record label World Circuit organized an unusual recording session at Havana’s historic Egrem studios. Tracks were recorded by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a multi-generational big band directed by Juan de Marcos González. Ry Cooder, the respected American guitarist and world music producer, arrived in Havana to produce a second session, gathering a stellar band of veteran Cuban musicians to record an album of traditional, pre-revolutionary Cuban son. The resulting album, produced by Cooder, was Buena Vista Social Club, inspired by an instrumental written by Orestes López and named after an old members-only social club in eastern Havana.
“I asked Marcos: ‘Does anybody do bolero anymore?’” Cooder recalled in an interview with the Toronto Sun. “He said, There’s only one. He’s hard to find but I’ll bring him in.’” Marcos tracked Ferrer down on a Havana street where he was taking his daily walk and asked him to join the recording session. “I didn’t want to go,” Ferrer confided to the Chicago Sun-Times. “But he kept on, until I finally agreed. I told him that I had to go home first, to wash up. He said, ‘No, the session is going on right now.’”
When Ferrer arrived at the studio, he started singing along to a bolero played by pianist Rubén González. “We knew immediately that here was one of the strongest songs for the album,” said World Circuit label head, Nick Gold, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “I thought Ibrahim was one of the best singers I’d ever heard.”
Many of the performers at the session had not been active in the music world for 20 years, and Ferrer was by no means the oldest in the line-up, which included the 77-year-old González and 89-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo. Three weeks after the first day of recording, three albums were ready for mixing: Buena Vista Social Club, Introducing Rubén González and A Todo Cuba Le Gusta (by the Afro-Cuban All-Stars). Despite the age of both the performers and most of the songs on the recording, Buena Vista Social Club was released in 1997 to overwhelming critical acclaim and astonishing commercial success, selling over six million copies worldwide and launching international careers for a number of its artists. In 1997 the album won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance.
For Ferrer, as a singer and songwriter, the recording was a vindication. “De Camino a La Vereda,” a song he wrote in the 1950s was included on Buena Vista Social Club, and for the first time Ferrer received a composer’s credit. “It seems to me as if it were a fairy tale,” he told the Toronto Sun in 1999, in an interview reproduced on the Canoe website. “But in a way it’s proof of what our dreams were, all of us, when we were young men. There is probably no other group who could have gotten together and rehearsed for one day and recorded such a record.”
Although the Buena Vista Social Club project resulted in a number of spin-off albums—including successful releases by Eliades Ochoa, Rubén González—Ornara Portuondo, the soft-spoken singer pictured on the album cover, was its major break-out star. “Juan de Marcos and Ry gave me back my life,” Ferrer told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. “I have been waiting for my moment. And now my turn has finally come.”
In 1998 Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo LP with Ferrer. The album was devised as a showcase for Ferrer’s vocal talents and the kind of music he sang at the height of his career, from Arsenio Rodriguez songs of the 1940s to Los Zafiros tunes from the 1960s. The album also featured Benny Moré’s classic “Qué Bueno Baila Usted” and several tender, expressive bolero, including the moving duet “Silencio” with Omara Portuondo. The sessions were captured on film by German film director Wim Wenders, along with Buena Vista Social Club live performances in Amsterdam and New York City. The resulting documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, earned an Academy Award nomination in 2000.
In 1999, after 60 years in the music business, Ferrer released his first solo disc, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. The album was well-received by both critics and public. “What could easily be an exercise in nostalgia instead pulsates with life, vigor, and heartening experience,” declared Q, Britain’s leading music magazine. It was also an emphatic commercial success, selling more than 1.5 million copies internationally and reaching number two on both Billboards Latin and World Music charts.
In 2000, at the age of 73, Ferrer won Best New Artist at the Latin Grammy Awards. “I had no idea that anybody of this age could be the best new anything,” he told the Dallas Morning News in a 2003 interview. Ironically, his success with Buena Vista Social Club also spawned a number of re-releases of his old Cuban recordings—the same records on which he had previously received no credit.
For his second solo album, Ferrer looked beyond pre-revolutionary Cuba for inspiration and incorporated broader musical influences, like Afro-Cuban funk. Three of his own compositions appeared on the record, including “La Música Cubana,” a tribute to Benny Moré, Abelardo Barroso, Arsenio Rodríguez and other great Cuban musicians. Performers on the album included a number of Buena Vista Social Club alumni, along with younger artists and non-Cuban performers, like accordionist Flaco Jimenez, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, a Grammy-winning gospel group. Released in 2003, Buenos Hermanos soared to the top of Billboard’s World Music and Tropical/Salsa charts.
Like Ferrer’s first album, Buenos Hermanos was produced by Ry Cooder, despite the difficulties of working in Cuba because of the U.S. trade embargo. “Bill Clinton liked the ‘Buena Vista’ record and film,” he reported to Newsweek. “He wrote a memo the last day he was in office, which was converted into a license.” Cooder was also conscious of Ferrer’s advancing age. “It’s the last chance in the world to work with such a voice,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ferrer has toured Europe, North and South America, Asia, and the Pacific to promote both his albums, meeting with an ecstatic reception. In Japan in 2000, performing with Rubén González and Ornara Portuondo, he sold out ten nights in 10,000-seat concert halls. In June of 2003 he performed in London’s fabled Royal Albert Hall, where the “crowd were on their feet, dancing and cheering him on like a pop star,” according to a review of the show in the Guardian.
Despite achieving the long-awaited success so late in life, Ferrer remained disarmingly modest about his talents and grateful to his fans around the world. He lives with his wife, Caridad (Cachin) Díaz Surita, in Havana, close to his seven children, 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He has a strong faith: an altar in his home is dedicated to Saint Lazarus, known as Babalé-Ayé in the Afro-Cuban Santería religion, and he always travels with a good-luck Lazarus pendant, given to him by his mother. “Ibrahim’s one of those people who sing totally from within,” Cooder told Newsweek in 2003. “You get who he is with every note. Entertainment at one time was built around such people. His kind is rare now.”
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, World Circuit, 1999.
Buenos Hermanos, Nonesuch, 2003.
As guest vocalist
A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, Afro-Cuban All-Stars, 1997.
Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club, 1997.
Tierra Caliente: Roots of Buena Vista, 1998 (with Los Bocucos).
Distinto Diferente, Afro-Cuban All-Stars, 1999.
Mi Oriente, (with Chepin and his Oriental Orchestra), reissued 1999.
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo, 2000.
Gorillaz, Gorillaz, 2001.
Specialist in All Styles, Orcestra Baobab, 2002.
Oro de Cuba, Orquesta Todos Estrellas, 2002.
Regreso Felix, Senén Suárez, 2002.
Mis Tiempos Con Chepin, (with Chepin and his Oriental Orchestra), Egrem, reissued 2002.
La Colleccion Cubana, Egrem, 2002.
Billboard, June 26, 1999, p. 12.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 11, 2003.
Daily Telegraph (U.K.), November 10, 2001.
Guardian (U.K.), March 7, 2003; June 2, 2003.
New York Times, April 19, 2003, p. D7.
Newsweek, May 5, 2003, p. 63.
Time, August 9, 1999, p. 72.
“Austin City Limits Kicks off its 27th Season,” Austin City Limits, www.pbs.org/klru/austin/artists/program7.html (June 17, 2003)
“Buena Vista Social Club,” PBS, www.pbs.org/buenavista/ (July 6, 2003)
“Buena Vista Social Club Presents Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer,” University of California, Santa Barbara, www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu/archive/2001-2002/perform/ferrer.htm (June 17, 2003)
“Cuban Leads Bolero Revolution, Q&A,” Canoe, www.canoe.ca/JamMusicArtistsF/ferrer_ibrahim.html (June 17, 2003)
“Ibrahim Ferrer,” AfroCubaWeb, www.afrocubaweb.com/ibrahimferrer.html (June 17, 2003)
“Ibrahim Ferrer,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (June 17, 2003)
“Ibrahim Ferrer,” VH1, www.vhl.com/artists/az/ferrer_ibrahim/bio.jhtml (June 17, 2003)
“Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club,” Austin City Limits, www.pbs.org/klru/austin/interviews/iferrer_interview.html (June 17, 2003)
“Review: Ibrahim Ferrer,” Q, www.q4music.com (June 17, 2003)
“Ry Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Q&A,” Canoe, www.canoe.ca/JamMusicArtistsC/cooder_ry_qna.html (June 17, 2003)
“Viva Buena Vista Social Club,” Salon, www.salon.com/ent/music/feature/1999/03/09feature.html (June 18, 2003)
—Paula J.K. Morris
Cuban vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (1927–2005) was a moderate star for much of his life in his native Cuba, but he skyrocketed to international popularity in his old age after appearing on the album Buena Vista Social Club, a collection of performances by elderly Cuban musicians. A film that followed the album's release featured a duet between Ferrer and his female contemporary Omara Portuondo, and that duet entranced the musical world, seeming to open a portal into a vanished era of arch-romantic Latin song.
That album led to a chance for Ferrer to fulfill a lifelong ambition. He was a skillful and enthusiastic exponent of the mid-century romantic style of Cuban song known as the bolero, but bandleaders had steered him instead toward more upbeat styles as a younger man. And then, during the era of Fidel Castro's Cuba, the new dance style of salsa grew on the island and was exported around the world; Ferrer's boleros were mostly forgotten, and by the time the Buena Vista Social Club album was recorded he was one of the few remaining vocalists with complete mastery of the style. In the eight years between the release of Buena Vista Social Club and his death in 2005, Ferrer made up for lost time, touring almost nonstop and becoming something of an international phenomenon.
Birth Began During Dance
Ferrer's background was multiracial and included African, French, Spanish, and Chinese strands. His father sang, and his mother was an enthusiastic dancer. It was during a dance on February 20, 1927, in fact, that Ferrer's mother went into labor and he was born in San Luis, Cuba, in Santiago province. Ferrer was fond of saying that he had begun singing and dancing in the womb. His mother gave him the name Ibrahim because she was fascinated with the Arab world, another piece of the Latin cultural mosaic.
Both of Ferrer's parents were dead by the time he was 12, and he made a living for a while by selling fruit on the street, unloading boats at a dock, and doing light carpentry. At the end of one year, when he was in his early teens, a cousin asked him to join a group called Jóvenes del Son—the Young Men of Son, son (pronounced with a long "o") being the African-inspired ancestor that had roots in eastern Cuba and was salsa's direct ancestor. Performing at a New Year's Eve party, they were paid one and a half pesos. It was a modest start, but it led to other appearances in the Santiago area at parties and festivals. Ferrer was drawn to the musical life, and he took odd jobs when he had to so that he could keep performing.
Ferrer's musical education occurred when he began to find jobs with other Santiago groups, each of them emphasizing a slightly different part of Cuba's complex musical culture. The son ensembles were growing into big bands, and Ferrer filled backup singer slots with several of them, sometimes taking lead vocals. Ferrer admired American crooner Nat "King" Cole as well as Cuba's classic bolero singers, but bandleaders pushed him to sing upbeat dance pieces instead. In the band Maravilla de Beltrán he initially sang tango music under bandleader Pancho Alonso. Singing lead vocals with a top Santiago big band, the Orquesta Chepin-Choven, Ferrer had a hit in 1955 with a song called "El platanar de Bartolo," but he was not credited on the record. Despite Cuban society's reputation for being essentially color-blind, Ferrer, as an Afro-Cuban, probably suffered discrimination in his early years.
With his musical prospects on the rise, Ferrer moved to Havana in 1957. he signed on as a backup vocalist with two of the top big bands of the day, the Orquesta Ritmo Oriental and the Banda Gigante, led by singer Beny Moré. The Communist revolution in 1959 put a dent in Cuban musicians' livelihoods, for the number of American tourists crowding Havana clubs was soon greatly reduced. Ferrer refused to join the large group of Cuban musicians who fled to the United States. In later years he was a staunch supporter of the revolution. He rejoined Alonso, whose band had been renamed Los Bocucos. He was still rarely allowed to sing boleros, partly because he was so effective as a jazz-like improviser in dance music. "I was always told that my voice was only suited to dance songs," he was quoted as saying by the Times of London. "That disappointment marked me forever."
Encounter with History
Los Bocucos performed in Paris in 1962 and then went on to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In Red Square in Moscow, for the first time, Ferrer saw snow. He met Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at a reception, knowing nothing of the crisis that had been developing in Cuba while he was on tour. "Imagine you've got a hedgehog in your hand. What do you do?" Khrushchev asked him. Ferrer answered that he would let go of it, and Khrushchev said, "Cuba is just the same. You can't touch it." The group was stranded in the Soviet Union as the U.S. blockaded the island. Finally returning home to Havana, Ferrer started a family with his wife, Caridad. Their large set of children has been variously numbered between six and eleven.
Ferrer continued to perform with Los Bocucos, eventually making some recordings for the state-owned Cuban record label Egrem and drawing a small but steady salary as a government-approved musician. He felt that the elimination of the wealthy American component of the group's audiences had actually had positive results. "The music got better after the revolution because we weren't playing for tourists so much," he was quoted as saying by Spencer Leigh of the Independent. "There was a greater identification between the musicians and the audience, which was Cuban." Still, Ferrer had to do construction work to make ends meet in the family's small apartment, which contained an old American refrigerator and some icons relating to the Afro-Cuban santería religion (a fusion of Catholicism and West African beliefs), of which Ferrer was an adherent.
Ferrer officially retired in 1991, having the bad luck to do so just as the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union led to the withdrawal of its support for Cuban economy. He was forced to work shining shoes on the streets of his Havana neighborhood, and it was in that situation that he was approached one day in 1996 by Juan de Marcos González, a Cuban musician and producer who had hatched the idea of the Buena Vista Social Club sessions together with American rock guitarist and world music enthusiast Ry Cooder.
Cooder had suggested the idea of a romantic song on the album to balance the African sounds of the other musicians, and Marcos González said that there was only one musician who could fill the bill. At first reluctant to become involved, Ferrer came to the studio and agreed to perform after experiencing an impromptu reunion with the other musicians, who were of his generation or even older—pianist Rubén González was 77, and guitarist Compay Segundo was 89. When Ferrer and González performed a classic bolero called "Dos Gardenias (para ti)" (Two Gardenias for You), the room was entranced and the album was another step closer to becoming a huge success.
Made Solo Debut
Even Cooder could not predict just how successful the album would become at the time. "I thought, 'Ten old guys playing Cuban music. Who's going to listen to it?'" he told Leila Cobo of Billboard. But the Buena Vista Social Club album sold more than six million copies around the world and spawned a variety of spin-offs, one of which was the 72-year-old Ferrer's debut solo album, The Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, released in 1999. The album, said England's Daily Telegraph, "showcased Ferrer's gift for balladry, heavy with nostalgia and sentiment, redolent of cigar smoke, sawdust, and jacaranda." It revived songs from the classic era of the bolero, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. The album sold more than one and a half million copies on its own, reaching the number two position on Billboard magazine's world music and Latin music charts. A duet between Ferrer and female vocalist Omara Portuondo, "Silencio," was featured in a Buena Vista Social Club film directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders.
Ferrer now found a large international demand from music lovers who wanted to experience his music in live performance. "The next time I saw Ibrahim Ferrer" after recording his solo album, Cooder told Cobo, "he's walking on stage at Carnegie Hall. The reaction to the human onstage—and this is a direct line from the audience, this poor anorexic audience starved for humanity—they go crazy. It's a wonderful case of what real beauty can do to the world." Ferrer toured nearly nonstop during the last several years of his life, winning the Best New Artist honor at the Latin Grammy awards at age 73 in the year 2000. He became a widely recognizable figure thanks to a signature golf cap he always wore. A series of concerts he performed in Japan that year with Rubén González and Omara Portuondo resulted in sold-out 10,000-seat halls for ten nights in a row.
A second Cooder-produced Ferrer album, Buenos Hermanos, won a Grammy award (for best traditional tropical album) in 2003, but U.S. relations with Cuba had worsened under the administration of President George W. Bush, and Ferrer was denied a visa to attend the ceremony. Cooder's trip to Cuba to produce the album itself had been made possible only by a directive signed by outgoing president Bill Clinton shortly before leaving office. Buenos Hermanos joined Ferrer's talents with those of other Buena Vista Social Club musicians as well as those of non-Cuban performers such as Mexican-American accordionist Flaco Jimenez and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, an African-American gospel ensemble. Ferrer also recorded a duet with English alternative rock star Damon Albarn.
Ferrer undertook a new European tour in 2005, but the ravages of emphysema—he was a lifelong smoker—had begun to catch up with him. He often expressed the idea that since he had gotten the chance to live the musical life of his dreams in his 70s, he was going to make the most of it while he could. Asked by Garth Cartwright of the Guardian why he kept touring, he answered, "I love to sing, to make music. Making music is the greatest joy." Ferrer died in Havana on August 6, 2005, but his legacy was due for expansion by a wealth of material that lay unreleased at his death.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 44, Gale, 2004.
Billboard, June 26, 1999; August 27, 2005.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), August 9, 2005.
Economist (US), August 20, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), August 9, 2005.
Independent (London, England), August 8, 2005.
New York Times, August 8, 2005.
Times (London, England), August 9, 2005.
After nearly a lifetime of dogged, unglamorous work in the music industry, the Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer rose to fame in his late sixties as a lead vocalist with the internationally successful Buena Vista Social Club. The humble, soft-spoken singer—perhaps the least flamboyant member of the Afro-Cuban music group—has charmed audiences around the world with his smooth, expressive voice and heartfelt sincerity. After the 1997 debut of both the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album and hit documentary film by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Ferrer’s face and voice became synonymous with the resurgence of big-band Cuban music. The singer went on to release two solo albums: 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer and 2003’s Buenos Hermanos. In 2000, at age 73, Ferrer won the Best New Artist award at the first annual Latin Grammys.
Ferrer was born and raised near the city of Santiago, in eastern Cuba, a region known for its music. Although his name recalls his mother’s fascination with Arabia, his ancestry includes French, African, Spanish, and Chinese great-grandparents. “My mother was pregnant with me at a dance,” Ferrer told Lorraine Ali of Newsweek, “and when the music began, she started having contractions. I think I was even singing inside the belly of my mother.”
As a child, Ferrer survived a nearly fatal case of tetanus. Although he once dreamed of becoming a doctor, his mother died when he was 12 years old, and he had to work to help support his family. At first young Ferrer took to the streets selling sweets and popcorn. A year later he and his cousin started a musical group, Los Jóvenes del Son (The Young Men of Sound). Playing at local parties, Ferrer made money for the first time as a singer. He went on to join a series of local Cuban big bands throughout the 1940s and 1950s, including Conjunto Sorpresa, Conjunto Wilson, and Pacho Alonso’s orchestra, Maravilla de Beltran. All told, Ferrer would sing with Alonso’s band for several decades, though he also performed as a guest with other big-name Cuban groups.
With Orquesta Chepin-Choven, Santiago’s top group, Ferrer recorded the 1955 hit single “El Platanar de Bartolo” (Bartolo’s Banana Field). The song led to some local renown for Ferrer—but since the single’s international release didn’t credit Ferrer, he was denied more widespread recognition. “I began to feel there was maybe a curse on me,” he told Peter Culshaw of London’s Sunday Telegraph.
In 1957 Ferrer relocated to Havana to sing with the Orquesta Ritmo Oriental, as well as with one of Cuba’s most celebrated musicians, Beny Moré. Later Ferrer reunited with Pacho Alonso’s orchestra, which had also changed its base to Havana, taking the new name of Los Bocucos. With Alonso’s group Ferrer toured socialist countries, including Russia, in 1962. Yet the
Born in 1927 near Santiago, Cuba.
Started performing at parties, age 13; sang with Cuban big bands of 1940s and 1950s, including Pacho Alonso’s orchestra; recorded hit single “El Platanar de Bartolo” with Orquesta Chepin-Choven, 1955; sang with Havana-based Orquesta Ritmo Oriental and Beny More, late 1950s; toured with Pacho Alonso’s Los Bocu-cos, early 1960s; retired from Los Bocucos, 1991; invited to sing with Buena Vista Social Club, 1997; released solo debut Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, 1999; released second album, Buenos Hermanos, 2003.
Awards: Latin Grammy Awards, Best New Artist, 2000, and Best Traditional Tropical Album for Buenos Hermanos, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Nonesuch Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
singer often took jobs—including a stint as a construction worker and a job at the docks—to supplement his modest musician’s salary.
Although he longed to sing the classic boleros (love ballads) for which he later became famous, Ferrer was told his voice was best suited to dance tunes. Greatly disappointed, Ferrer began to feel underappreciated by and disillusioned with the music world. By the 1980s Ferrer was still singing with Los Bocucos, but he was supplementing his income by shining shoes on the streets of Havana. He left Los Bocucos in 1991, feeling that a fulfilling career in music had somehow eluded him.
In the late 1990s Ferrer’s career underwent an amazing reversal. Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos and American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder collaborated in an effort to bring together an all-star cast of Cuban musicians. Although Ferrer was excluded from the original lineup of singers, during the first recording sessions Cooder requested a soft-voiced singer who could perform a bolero. De Marcos tracked down Ferrer, who at first declined the invitation. “I wasn’t interested,” Ferrer is quoted in his biography on the Nonesuch Records website. “I had suffered a lot through music. I felt I don’t know how to say it disappointed by my life in music. But [de Marcos] went on until I agreed to record a number with him.”
Ferrer ended up singing almost all the songs on the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ 1997 debut album, Toda Cuba le Gusta. In that same year the group recorded the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album, the culmination of Cooder’s and de Marcos’s efforts, with Ferrer leading on vocals. A smash success, the album went platinum, bringing fame to Ferrer and his ragtag group of collaborators.
Two years later, Wim Wenders released the popular documentary Buena Vista Social Club, which told the story of Cuban music from the golden age of 1940s and 1950s big-band to the Latin movement of today. Images of Ferrer and a soundtrack showcasing his soulful falsetto voice permeated the film, making the 72-year-old crooner a veritable poster boy for the revived Cuban-music movement. Along with the film came Ferrer’s solo recording debut, 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, which sold 1.5 million copies. Worldwide tours followed for the singer, who had been shining shoes only two years earlier. “It took me a while to acknowledge I was good because for such a long time I was being told I wasn’t,” Ferrer told Newsweetfs Ali. “It’s only recently that I began to accept that maybe there is something in there that I can give to people.”
At the first Latin Grammy Awards in 2000, Ferrer won a Grammy for Best New Artist. Three years later he released his second solo album, Buenos Hermanos (Good Brothers), also produced by Ry Cooder. The American embargo against Cuba nearly hindered the album’s creation, but a memo from departing American President Bill Clinton (a Buena Vista Social Club fan) helped the musicians bypass bureaucracy.
The “good brothers” of the album’s title refer perhaps to Ferrer’s guest stars, which include the pianist Chucho Valdez, the accordionist Flaco Jimenez, and the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama, collaborations that produce a more international (rather than purely Cuban) sound. Yet the traditional Cuban boleros, which underscore Ferrer’s warm, joyous singing, are some of the album’s most successful tracks. By May of 2003 Buenos Hermanos was number one on the world-music charts.
Ferrer’s late-blossoming fame has taken him around the world. His touring band, Orquestra Ibrahim Ferrer, features some of Cuba’s most vibrant musical talents. With his fellow musicians, Ferrer has contributed enormously to the resurgence of Afro-Cuban music internationally. “I have been waiting for my moment,” the 75-year-old Ferrer told Laura Emerick of the ChicagoSun-Times in 2003. “And now my turn has finally come.”
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, World, 1999.
Buenos Hermanos, Nonesuch, 2003.
Buena Vista Social Club, Egrem, 1997.
A Toda le Gusta, Egrem, 1997.
Tierra Caliente: Roots of Buena Vista, Egrem, 2000.
Mis Tiempos con Chepin, Egrem, 2002.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 11, 2003, p. 36.
Newsweek, May 5, 2003, p. 63.
Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), February 1, 2003, p. 45.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), November 10, 2001, p. 45.
“Ibrahim Ferrer,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (May 23, 2003).
“Ibrahim Ferrer,” Nonesuch Records, http://www.nonesuch.com/Hi_Band/bio.cfm?artist_filename=ferrer.gif (May 26, 2003).