Ibrahim Ferrer - Biography
Ibrahim Ferrer was a Cuban musician who, though well known in his own country, was catapulted to international fame when he appeared on the successful Buena Vista Social Club albums, which were produced by guitarist Ry Cooder. Ferrer was born in 1927 in San Luis, Cuba. His mother passed away while he was young and he was forced to busk to earn a living. When he couldn't busk he would sell roadside wares to passers by, such as fruit and periodicals. When he was 13 he formed a duo, called Los Jovenes del Son, with his cousin. They began getting enough work to eke out a living. All the while Ferrer was soaking up the sounds and musical stylings of Cuba such as the boleros, danzón, guarachas, son and blends of African and Spanish rhythms and melodies.
Soon Ferrer became a young adult with some experience already in tow as well as the charisma and talent to get real work as a musician. He began playing with established groups such as Beny Moré, who is one of the most famous singers of boleros and Cuban popular songs, Maravilla de Beltrán, Conjunto Sorpresa, La Orquesta Chepín Chovén, which featured Cuban jazz composer Electo Chepin Rosell and offered Ferrer his first recording chance, which led to the song, which would be Ferrer's first hit, "El Platanal de Bartolo". This record gained him more notoriety and fame in his country so moved, with his family, to Havana. There was soon playing with Orquesta Ritmo Oriental. This is also where he met Moré. Soon Ferrer was playing regularly and would once again play with his old music mate from Santiago, Pacho Alonso, who made a name for himself within Cuba as a singer and innovator of the style of music known as Pilón, to form the group Los Bocucos.
It was Los Bocucos who would first take Ferrer to tour Europe in the early 60's. They were invited to go by the communist party and they managed to get two months of gigs in cosmopolitan locations such as Prague, Paris and lastly Moscow, where the group met president Nikita Kruschev. This was during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the group became stranded in Moscow because they could not fly home. President Kruschev was a cordial host and at one point even asked Ferrer his thoughts on the missile crisis situation. Ferrer, who had been on the road for the last two months, was completely unaware of what had happened. It was after the crisis though that Ferrer would begin to play more for his own people rather than the tourists, which is something Ferrer felt good about, at first. Ferrer would stay with Los Bocucos until his inevitable retirement in the early 90's. After the last tour, which was in Chile, Ferrer attempted to live off of government subsidies but could not get enough pension money to support himself so he would have to sell lottery tickets and shine shoes to be able to provide for his family, which had 11 children in it. This would not be the end for Ferrer though.
Ferrero had always been hired to perform dance, son, and guaracha music, but his true love was singing the delicate and romantic boleros that he was very capable of. He got his chance in 1996 when he was asked by American guitarist Ry Cooder and Cuban tres player Juan de Marcos González. asked Ferrer to come sing on their new recording. They were seeking someone who could sing a bolero inthe old style. Ferrer was their man and accepted the offer. When he arrived at the recording studio he was surprised to find many musicians there, who were his life-long idols. These musicians included Compay Segundo, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez and Rubén González. With this groupd Ferrer recorded both the Afro-Cuban All Stars' record, A Toda Cuba le Gusta (1997 Elektra) and the now ultra famous Buena Vista Social Club (1998 World Circuit), which was named in honor a members only club which was popular in the 40s but had not existed for 50 years at the time of the recording.
A Todo Cuba le Gusta was a mostly improvised session, with the players playing on tunes that all of them knew, but with little arrangement on their parts. Not much was needed as these seasoned pros dominated these songs. This album attempted to bridge the multigenerational divide among the musicians but many have criticized it for its slick production, by a westerner, Cooder, as well as by the very presence of an American musician, again Cooder. Thought the results are quite nice, the fact that they are easily digestible by the masses, along with the inclusion of Cooder, makes them suspect in the eyes of Cuban music afficionados.
Buena Vista Social Club was a much more lauded and highly sold record than its previous effort. This album brought the band for a tour of Europe in 1998, which not only led to critical acclaim but to the attention of famed Filmmaker Wim Wenders. Wenders filmed their concerts in Amsterdam and New York. He juxtaposed these two concerts with interview clips, shot in Cuba to create a film, also called Buena Vista Social Club. This film won an Academy Award for best documentary.
These chance meetings would prove to not only revitalize Ferrer's career but to take it to new heights, which he had never seen. But the drama of being Cuban was still not over. When the group won a Grammy for their album Bueno Hermanos (2003 Nonesuch), but were denied the work visas to attend the ceremony in the US. This drew much criticism from the international community as well as to a mural being painted in Cuba, which bears the likeness of Ferrer and reads "...now they say that we are terrorists!".
Shortly after the release of this album Ferrer died, in Havana, of multiple organ failure. He was 78-years-old. He had just finished, what would be, his last tour in Europe. His story is one of triumph over adversity.