[19 June 2007]
“I’m living the dream of my youth in the body of an old man.” - Ibrahim Ferrer
Ibrahim Ferrer was 55 when he was asked to contribute to the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ A Toda Cuba Le Gusta in 1996. Before that, he made a sparse living shining shoes in the streets of Havana. In an interview reproduced on World Music Central, he explains that “It was that way I joined, without being in the project, because I was not part of the Buena Vista (Social Club) project.” Thanks to American guitarist, singer, and composer Ry Cooder, who happened to be at Havana’s Egrem Studios when Ferrer went there to record “Maria Caracoles” for the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Ferrer did join the Buena Vista Social Club project and, with fellow members Juan de Marcos González, Rubén González, Pio Leyva, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, Orlando “Cachaito” López, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo, Barbarito Torres, Amadito Valdés, and Joachim Cooder, earned for himself an international reputation. The album itself won a Grammy Award in 1998 for Best Tropical Latin Peformance and, in 1999, Wim Wenders’ documentary of the same name went on to win Best Documentary at the European Film Awards. More importantly, however, Buena Vista Social Club revived traditional Caribbean music and, in the hands of producer Nick Gold, helped to create a lucrative market for world music in general. Subsequent Buena Vista Social Club albums, including Ferrer’s own in 1999, proved to be highly successful and only further solidified the album’s reputation.
Mi Sueño, a phrase that means “My Dream” in English, is the third of Ferrer’s solo efforts since his breakthrough with the Buena Vista Social Club Project. The album represents his lifetime dream to construct an album of boleros, romantic popular songs that rely on the subtle percussion of the Conga or Bongos for effect. Ferrer explains that from the beginning of his career he was not invited to vocalize this genre due to the fact that his voice was supposedly not suited for it. Even Pacho Alonso’s group, with whom Ferrer sang in the 1950s, would not allow him to sing more than one bolero. In the 1970s, when the group changed their name to Los Bocucos, Ferrer’s contribution was confined largely to guarachas and sons, up-tempo songs that creatively blended Spanish and African musical influences: “I stayed with Los Bocucos as the main vocalist, but they never let me sing boleros. I recorded only one bolero with them, and we had so many records. They did not give me credit either, but my numbers were hits.”
It was his involvement with the Buena Vista Social Club project that allowed Ferrer to showcase his talent with the bolero in the song “Dos Gardenias”. Though he had been offered numerous opportunities to cultivate his talent, Ferrer frequently struggled to receive credit in his own right as a vocalist who can hold his own. His first solo album in 1999, the 2003 Buenos Hermanos , and the recently released Mi Sueño signal a departure for Ferrer from having to conform to the demands of others to following his own chosen path. Mi Sueño almost didn’t happen. Ferrer died three weeks before the album could be finished. Thanks to his high-quality demos, the album stands as a stunning closing remark on a career that is both expansive and impressive in terms of the ways in which it helped to change the world’s musical landscapes.
Ferrer’s interpretation of the bolero is just as innovative as his career, which really started in the early 1930s when the young vocalist was forced to busk for a living in Santiago. The joys of hardwon recognition come through in Ferrer’s vocals, which flawlessly articulate the romantic sensibilities of the bolero against the musical backdrop provided by pianist Roberto Fonseca, guitarist Manuel Galbán, bassist Orlando “Cachaíto” López, drummer Ramses Rodríguez, and percussionist Emilio del Monte. A tribute, perhaps, to the group that constituted a turning point for Ferrer’s career internationally, late Buena Vista Social Club pianist Rubén González contributes to the track “Melodía del Río”, and singer Omara Portuondo to “Quizás, Quizás”. Attesting to the skill of Ferrer’s collaborators, who also include trumpet player Manuel “Guajira” Mirabal on “Copla Guajira”, the piano’s introductory phrase quickly gives way to the rhythms of other instruments to produce a rather democratic and seamlessly melodic mix. Ferrer’s vocals neither overwhelm nor dominate the scene; rather, they fill out the song with the lilting romance of the bolero.
Ferrer may have struggled to make his voice be heard throughout this career, but his lifelong work with groups insured that he had the ability to add his voice to a mix without governing it. The vocal chords are undeniably instruments for Ferrer, organic devices over which the 78-year old vocalist is in perfect control. The youthful vitality at the heart of the bolero is definitively within his grasp, and suggests that is the oldest singers who might have the most to offer in a world frequently overwhelmed by disingenuous interpretations of romantic sentiment.