Among the rags-to-riches stories that make the annals of popular music such a colorful read, few tales are as dramatic as that of Ibrahim Ferrer, now age 76.
Dubbed “the Cuban Nat King Cole” by Ry Cooder, who gave him a key role in the Buena Vista Social Club project, Ferrer was shining shoes at the time Cooder managed to track him down. As the success of the Social Club launched phase two of Ferrer’s halted career, and propelled him to previously unimaginable heights, these days he is more likely to be found polishing his gold discs than other people’s spats and loafers.
To the delight of his widening Japanese fan-base, Ferrer will be performing in Tokyo Oct. 14-15 to promote his latest album, “Buenos Hermanos.” This will be his third visit to Japan, and he clearly can’t wait to perform here again.
“I have been wishing to come back to Japan for a long time,” he said in an e-mail interview. “It was wonderful to feel all the love that the Japanese audience gave us when I was here with all the Buena Vista Social Club members. I was surprised as, despite the so-called ‘language barrier’ and other ‘cultural differences,’ they could understand our music perfectly. . . . . There is no ‘language barrier’ in music.”
Ferrer had a perfect start to a career in music, being born at a social dance in San Luis, near Santiago in 1927, but he had a difficult early childhood. The death of his mother when he was only 12 years old left Ferrer to fend for himself, so he turned to his most obvious, and most remarkable, asset — his golden voice.
By the time he was 13 he had graduated from singing on the streets of Santiago and, with his cousin, had formed his first group, Jovenos del son (The Young Men of Son).
Son is a style with hazy Afro-Cuban roots going back several hundred years, and although less well known outside Cuba than rumba, mambo or cha-cha-cha, it is no less important, as the son rhythm also forms the base of several other Cuban musical forms. Befitting its African origins it is highly rhythmic, but complemented by a poetic lyrical style derived from Cuba’s Spanish heritage. It arrived in Havana from the rural areas of eastern Cuba in the early 20th century and by the time Ferrer was of age, it had became an urban form of popular music.
Ferrer was soon invited to sing with a string of Santiago bands, including the city’s most successful and influential jazz group, Orquesta Chepin-Choven. In 1953 he joined Pacho Alanso’s band and they made the move to Havana in 1959, changing their name to Los Bocucos. By 1962 they were on tour in Paris and Eastern Europe, and had just finished a date at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out. With heightened tensions around the globe, the band had to wait it out in Moscow until things cooled down.
Ferrer thought he was on his way to a wonderful career, but after returning to Cuba he discovered he had in fact arrived at a dead-end. The standoff between the United States and Cuba resulted in a U.S. embargo on cultural exports from Cuba, which cut Cuban musicians off from their biggest potential export market. And at home, things were looking bleaker. The Communist authorities discouraged people from tapping into traditional Cuban culture, and young people’s feet were moving to the beat of modern sounds such as salsa. These false starts and tricks of fate, not to mention unscrupulous hucksters (he was left uncredited and paid little for his contributions to most of his recordings), pushed a disillusioned Ferrer to throw in the towel. Like many of his peers, he didn’t perform again for decades.
Another cause of his frustration was the lack of opportunity to sing boleros, his favorite Cuban song style. A slower, more passionate form than the dancier son that most producers pushed on Ferrer, it shares some of the drama and romanticism of opera (which apparently left its mark on Cuban music thanks to a visit by an Italian opera company back in 1842).
“I have always liked boleros, but I was always discouraged because they would say my voice was not good for them,” Ferrer says. “But I feel boleros let me transmit all my feelings. Speaking about love is very important.”
He finally had the opportunity to record some boleros on his first solo album, “Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer,” and on the new “Buenos Hermanos.” No doubt he will perform some on his Tokyo dates. But whatever he chooses to sing, he will certainly be celebrating in style, bringing his new 18-piece orchestra with him
“Music is everything in Cuba. We always have the time to enjoy it and feel it.”
One can hardly imagine how he feels about gaining recognition so late in his life, but he shows no signs of bitterness. “You know, I believe things happen when the time comes. I have worked hard and lovingly and this is a lifetime’s reward. I cannot be anything but grateful. Discovering the world, different cultures and people — I feel like a newborn child. To be able to share my feelings through music is simply wonderful.”
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