Ibrahim Ferrer’s first record gave the world the chance to hear the wonderfully wasted voice of a 71-year-old “new” artist — no one outside Cuba had ever noticed him, and he wasn’t even all that famous in his homeland. But Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer changed all that. Ferrer not only sings wonderfully (and with great strength and confidence), but, as we all learned, he was a hilarious improviser and a song stylist with just the right mix of respect and irreverence towards classic Cuban songs. For years, I have been convinced that it was the greatest triumph of the whole Buena Vista phenomenon.
But I was wrong, because this LP rules all over that one. Between this record and the Manuel Galbán album I reviewed two months ago, Ry Cooder has just justified the entire Buena Vista part of his career. It’s the same unusual two drummer/ two guitar/ conga/ bass ensemble as on the Galbán record, but he’s really lit a fire under some people’s butts and cooked a stronger and more out-there groove out of them. In addition, he’s convinced the great pianist Chucho Valdés to show up more often, and invited in some truly inspired guest artists on several tracks. Other Buena Vista releases have made Cooder seem like just a canny custodian of Cuban music, but this record shows that he’s a true innovator.
And it’s Cooder’s genius that it never turns into a “Ry Cooder and his little Cuban friends” record. This is Ibrahim Ferrer’s record, and we know this from the very beginning. His voice is still in fine style: not too perfect, but true and evocative and sly as only a 75-year-old Cuban fox can be. These songs hinge on that voice, play with it, play off it, and give him a perfect atmosphere to show it off.
Sure, he’s got to play it smooth sometimes, and so Ferrer busts out some ballads here that would make robots bawl their eyes out. He’s been through everything, has Ferrer — young success, disrespect and jealousy from his Cuban musical peers, late-life global success, love, loss — and he makes you feel it on the slow jams. “Naufragio” (“Shipwreck”), an esteemed classic in his homeland, could not possibly be more perfect in its version here. It starts like it’s going to be a typical ballad feature, with that beautiful voice floating over a bed of piano and smooth percussion and Orlando “Cachaíto” López’s jazz bass work, but it comes alive with the sympathetic harmony vocals and accordion work of Mexican legend Flaco Jiménez. Early on, this makes it sound more lighthearted, but by the second chorus you’ll find yourself welling up. Even if you’re a robot.
“Perfume de Gardenias” typifies the way Cooder hooks his man up on this record. It’s slower than a city bus, and as pretty as it needs to be, but then, when Ferrer really starts to lay it on, he is joined by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama on backing doo-wop vocals. This is the sound that heaven would make if there was a God, y’all, and it takes a wonderful song out of the park, deep to center, kiss it goodbye. It’s almost overkill when Gil Bernal (the dude who played saxophone for the Coasters) starts adding his trademark soft honk but not quite. Lovely.
But it’s not just the ballads that make this record the beautiful thing it is; the uptempo numbers are just as inventive. The title track is a great cooking groove of a thing, sneaky and smooth, with some hard-edged organ work by Galbán behind Ferrer’s trademark son improvisation, but then a couple great things happen: weird horn breaks, power chords popping up here and there, a great “Hmmmmm” from the backing vocalists, all things that you just don’t see coming. And then it gets weird: from nowhere, a Middle-Eastern snake-charmer thing! Avant sax! Galbán sounding like Rod Argent on the organ! It’s Cuban fusion R&B, and it works better than the ballads even, and I couldn’t love it more.
Ferrer and Valdés apparently improvised the very next track, “Musica Cubana”, in the studio, but it doesn’t sound like it. This could have been #1 on the Havana Top 40 in 1965, between the Lay-Z-Boy beat and Ferrer’s passionate croon — but then Valdés has to go and play the piano solo of his life to bring it home, all free-jazz and desperately traditional at the same time. When the horns and backing vox finally kick in at the four-minute mark, it attains a level of greatness that cannot be messed with.
Unlike some other albums in this category, Buenos Hermanos does not lose steam as it goes along. “No Tiene Teleraña” sounds like most of the stuff on Cooder and Galbán’s Mambo Sinuendo, but it turns out that Ferrer’s voice can do anything, including lift this twangy thing into outer space. He hits a couple long notes here that prove that “perfection” in a voice is an overrated thing. He wavers a bit, but that makes everything better and truer and more like what life is like. “Boliviana” is pillow music, soft music with no soft edges to it, a rhumba that sounds African and European and South American all at once. And it ends with a bang: “Oye el Consejo” shows what electric guitars combined with a horn section could have been doing for Cuban music all along. The chorus of this song cannot be beat for joy.
Okay, so I’m kvelling. It’s that good. Ibrahim Ferrer could not have made a better album, at this point in his life or at any other point in his life. Ry Cooder can rest assured that he finally knocked it off. But, most importantly, we get the chance to hear 55 minutes and 25 seconds of tough perfection. Ibrahim Ferrer may be three-quarters of a century old, but he’s still one of the most important singers in the world.