Photo: Christien Jaspars / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Revisiting Buena Vista’s Ibrahim Ferrer

Ibrahim Ferrer's Buenos Hermanos is a thoroughly enjoyable, perfectly realized example of Afro-Cuban music's appeal.

Buenos Hermanos
Ibrahim Ferrer
World Circuit
28 February 2020

As if it needed to be proven again, the re-release of the late Ibrahim Ferrer’s Buenos Hermanos is a tribute to the lasting popularity of the ragtag assemblage of Cubans at the center of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, perfectly realized example of Afro-Cuban music’s appeal. Starting in the 1950s, Ferrer had a successful career as a singer with several Cuban bands, but he had given up on that career by the time he was approached by producers to record in 1996 at the age of 69. In fact, he was shining shoes. With the 1997 release of the The Buena Vista Social Club albums and a subsequent Wim Wenders documentary, the group was an unlikely international triumph.

Producers Ry Cooder and Nick Gold had gone to Cuba to record Malian singers with Cuban musicians, but visa problems caused the project to fall through. As an alternative, they decided to bring together some of the older musicians whose music had long fallen out of favor in Cuba. Though the players had never performed together, the collegial feeling of the sessions led them to create the Buena Vista Social Club moniker. The elegant, retro sound among the first albums became international best-sellers, and several of the individual musicians, including singer Ibrahim Ferrer, did solo albums. Buenos Hermanos, originally released in 2003, was his second post-Buena Vista release and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album. Cooder now has remastered the album for this re-release and added four tracks that were not on the original.

On Buenos Hermanos, Ferrer and Cooder stretch out a bit from classic Cuban sounds, adding “foreign” elements such as the gospel-flavored singing of the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tex-Mex accordion player Flaco Jimenez, who leavens the retro chacha “Como El Arrullo de Palma (Like the Whispering of the Palm)”. The team around Ferrer does a skillful job of reinventing this veteran singer. Instead of creating a set of songs that bathes in nostalgia, they successfully experiment with atypical elements making this singer – who was born the year that Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” introduced “talkies” – seem like a precocious upstart.

Ferrer returned to his roots of singing upbeat numbers, though the Buena Vistas had him specializing in the slower boleros. With a fully loaded ensemble behind him, Ferrer is let loose to improvise as a sonero. His lived-in, honey and sand voice is not powerful, but it holds center stage amid the swirling sound with his ability to dart and dance on top of the rhythms.

The album opens with the hard-swinging “Boquinene”, with a big band – horns, chorus, percussion – swinging hard behind Ferrer as he improvises over the descarga jam session, giving shout-outs to several of the musicians. On the chugging title cut, Manuel Galban’s biting Hammond/Lesley B3 organ adds an atypical texture to the funky rhythms of this tongue-in-cheek song about family, where the narrator recounts how his “good brothers” constantly give him the least desirable cuts of meat they bring home. “They leave me the skin / They leave me the gristle / Such good brothers.”

“Musica Cubana” features the monster piano player Chuchu Valdez, who starts by falling in line with the slinky vamp under Ferrer’s improvised vocals, then takes off on a solo that is playful and powerful, bending melody and rhythms at will. It’s a short showcase that brings to mind the late Ruben Gonzalez, another Buena Vista senior citizen star. Another facet of the repertoire here is “Perfume de Gardenias”, which recalls classic 1950s American pop, an unabashed romantic paean to a woman. “Your mouth has the scent of gardenias,” Ferrer sings with the sweet vocals of the Blind Boys of Alabama swelling behind him and a sexy tenor sax solo by Gill Bernal.

One of the new tracks, “Ven Conmigo, Guajira (Come with Me, Country Girl)”, is a loose-limbed, swinging old country number with Ferrer improvising over a steady chorus and a blasting brass section, repeatedly asking the titular country girl to dance. Another new track is “Ojos Malvados”, a bluesy song about a former lover whose “heart is made of ice”. The song features the sinuous surf-guitar sound of Manuel Galban, who established himself with the 1960s Cuban doo-wop group Las Zafiros and was part of the Buena Vista ensemble.

A set of albums created by accident and that “re-created” a mythical ensemble that never existed in the first place nevertheless made stars of some deserving musicians and opened up new audiences to the rich musical heritage of Cuba. This re-release is another opportunity to revisit music that never fully got its due in America and is worth seeking out.

RATING 8 / 10