The 1997 release of Buena Vista Social Club was, for many non-Cubans in the world, a groundbreaking first encounter with Cuban music. Time and time again, the album is cited as instrumental in sparking foreign interest in Cuban and, more broadly, Latin American popular music releases. Whether such should be the case is debatable; after all, Buena Vista Social Club, for all the work it has done abroad, hardly represents Cuban music as a whole. With that said, there’s no question of its high profile at a particularly climactic point in the world music market. There’s also no doubt that for many, the voice of Ibrahim Ferrer served as a guide into a new sonic world, one awash in jazz and encircled by the Caribbean Sea.
By the time Buena Vista Social Club came out, Ferrer was 70; before his death in 2005, he recorded two more albums for World Circuit, including 2003 release Buenos Hermanos. Now, a new reissue sees the final Ferrer album (except for those released after his death) remixed, reordered, and bolstered by four previously unreleased tracks from the original recording sessions, all at the hands of Ry Cooder himself.
Ferrer’s voice is as beautiful an instrument here as with the Club, rising and soaring, weathered with age but still pitch-perfect and full of light. That is no surprise, of course; nor is the musicianship that surrounds him, on warm brass, African-derived drums, tropical guitars, and sparkling piano. The music here is very much of the ilk that Buena Vista Social Club made the world fall in love with, the prototypical sounds that evoke imaginaries of a Cuban cultural golden age most of its listeners could never really have known.
It’s hard to say why the missing tracks – “Me Voy Pa Sibanicú”, “Ojos Malvados”, “Mujer”, and “Ven Conmigo Guajira” – were left off of the original mix; Cooder calls them “overlooked for some reason”. Perhaps it was for length. Perhaps it was for ease of production. It certainly was not for lack of fit or quality. Here, those tracks are interwoven carefully into the sequence, extending the vision in beautiful ways. Slow track “Mujer” is particularly beautiful, with a sparse guitar introduction that has Morricone soundtrack undertones and a singularly wistful vocal line for Ferrer. There’s a 1970s soul feel to “Ven Conmigo Guajira”, an emphasis on upbeat keys and a beat you can walk down sun-drenched city streets to. The title track, though, is an evergreen jewel of swirling reeds, psychedelic organ, and sharp rhythms, all backing the chorus uplifting Ferrer’s lead.
Iconic voices like Ferrer’s tend to become stale, especially given the ubiquity of his work outside of Cuba. There will be plenty of people who don’t see much need to hear it again. There will be more who are ready to revisit the fantasy Cuba he represents, a blend of earth and fire, sensual and soulful. Whether or not his specific sound ever represented Cuba in any realistic way, Ferrer’s venerability and vitality at the time of World Circuit’s Cuban releases established him as perhaps the embodiment of Cuban big-band jazz for outsiders. His legacy is an important one in the history of Latin American musical flows. More subjectively, his voice is a beautiful one to behold and always has been. Buenos Hermanos‘ return – coming, along with other reissues, in celebration of BMG’s acquisition of World Circuit – brings a timelessly brilliant performer back into the spotlight.