Ibrahim Ferrer, rose to fame with Buena Vista Social ClubIbrahim Ferrer, rose to fame with Buena Vista Social Club
August 7, 2005
BY LAURA EMERICK Staff Reporter
Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban vocalist who emerged from obscurity to become a breakout star with the Buena Vista Social Club, died Saturday in Havana. He was 78.
Mr. Ferrer, who had suffered from emphysema, had fallen ill earlier this week, according to his production company.
Along with guitarist Compay Segundo and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, Mr. 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.
Organized by American producer-instrumentalist Ry Cooder and Cuban music director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the Buena Vista Social Club became an international phenomenon, spawning sold-out tours, award-winning albums and an Oscar-nominated documentary.
Had given up music
Mr. Ferrer's role in the group was especially poignant because he had given up music after singing in several acclaimed bands such as Orquesta de Chepin and ensembles led by the legendary Beny More and Pacho Alonso during Cuba's golden age of the '40s and '50s. But in all these groups, Mr. Ferrer found himself pushed to the background. Though his voice could be heard, he was often not credited on the records.
"There was the name of the bandleader, the group, the songwriter, but never the singer," he recalled in a 2003 interview with the Sun-Times.
Living on a small pension and shining shoes, Mr. Ferrer reluctantly came out of retirement for the Buena Vista project. "I didn't want to go," he said in the 2003 interview. "But he [Juan de Marcos] 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.'"
After the huge popularity of the "The Buena Vista Social Club" (1997), which won a Grammy, and the related disc "Toda Cuba Le Gusta" (1997) by the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, Mr. 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. His most recent solo disc, "Buenos Hermanos" (2003), also produced by Cooder and featuring many of his Buena Vista mates, received a Grammy for best traditional tropical Latin album.
Known for his trademark Kangol cap and brightly colored jackets, Mr. Ferrer became a pop culture favorite worldwide. For instance, Damon Albarn, leader of the British pop band Blur, asked him to sing on the track "Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)," recorded in 2001 for his side project, the virtual hip-hop band Gorillaz. And Orchestra Baobab, the acclaimed world music group from Senegal, saluted the great sonero with "Hommage a Tonton Ferrer" on its album "Specialist in All Styles" (2002).
His voice, reedy yet imploringly beautiful, conveyed the romantic essence of the bolero, the style he insisted 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, bear that assessment out. Cooder once called Mr. Ferrer the lost link to Cuba's golden age. "It's the last chance in the world to work with such a voice," he said.
Despite his affinity for the bolero, Mr. Ferrer said that 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. As a child, I used to listen to a lot of tangos and then turn them into boleros."
Performed in Chicago in 2003
Born in 1927 in Santiago, Mr. Ferrer had an early introduction to music when his mother went into labor at a dance club.
Mr. Ferrer most recently performed in Chicago in 2003 at the Chicago Theatre and was scheduled to appear last summer at the Ravinia Festival. But the date was canceled after the Bush administration tightened visa restrictions on Cuban artists.
Early in his career, Mr. Ferrer used to sing a song called "Cuando Me Toca a Mi," which asked, "When will it be my turn? If not next year, then maybe in the year 2000."
That song proved to prophetic. Of his rediscovery in his twilight years, "Everywhere I go, I find the same thing, such a warm reception to my singing," he said in the 2003 interview. "That's the best memory I have. For me, that's what matters."
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