In 2003 Peter Culshaw headed to Cuba to meet Ibrahim Ferrer and find out what had changed five years after the Buena Vista phenomenon
“It’s the end of a dream. We caught the tail end of a comet,” says Ry Cooder, referring to the Indian summer of Cuban music that started with the Buena Vista Social Club. If there is a sense of the end of an era, there’s at least one last fabulous flowering of music in Ibrahim Ferrer’s new Buenos Hermanos album, a record on a par with any of the others. More international – with guests like Flaco Jiménez and The Blind Boys Of Alabama – and with a grittier production, it is a seriously classy release. Perhaps it should be – around 50 songs were recorded at different times in the four years since Ferrer’s first album.
Everyone who has met Ferrer is impressed by his almost painful modesty and sense of surprise at his enormous success. Nick Gold, co-producer of his first album and World Circuit boss, told me that when they were rushing to complete the album, he had a sore throat. “Ibrahim suggested we could always get another singer for the remaining tracks. You simply can’t imagine other stars making that suggestion.”
The story of how Juan de Marcos González came round to his house and insisted a reluctant Ferrer come to the Buena Vista sessions has become the stuff of legend. At that time, he was retired and scraping by, shining shoes and selling lottery tickets. It’s one of the great mythic tales in popular music. Just how huge a star he has become was made clear on a tour of Japan in 2000. Along with Omara Portuondo and Rúben González, they sold out ten 10,000-seater auditoriums. Ferrer, on his way to buy a souvenir kimono, practically stopped the traffic as awestruck salarymen and office ladies nervously asked for autographs.
He has several tales showing just how crazy things were getting. One woman in Jerusalem got down on her knees in front of him because she thought he was a saint. He has received letters from depressed people as far afield as Mexico and Japan who have said that his music had saved their lives.
In December, World Circuit took a group of European journalists to Santiago de Cuba, in the east of the island where Ferrer was born. This alone illustrates how much his life has changed. Ferrer gamely put up with being grilled five times a day by the assembled hacks in an intense schedule that many other stars would have complained about. One journalist who came to make a promotional video complained that everywhere she went, elderly men attempted to get in shot and start singing – all hoping to be discovered. That night, it was fantastic to see Ferrer sing a couple of numbers in a small Casa De La Musica in front of 50 people – even though one of the other singers in the band tried to hog the limelight.
We visited the house where Ferrer was born – a bitter-sweet experience for him. It was in that house he had first learned music, but it was also where his mother had died when he was ten. She gave him his cane of San Lazaro which he carries around nearly all the time. Viewers of the Buena Vista film will remember seeing the statue of San Lazaro in his house in Havana. Ferrer told me he gives the statue “rum or honey, or whatever I feel he would like”.
“I began to feel there was some kind of curse on me.”
Every year on December 17, the saint’s day, he holds a special celebration in his house in Havana. Lazarus, who rose from the dead, seems as good a symbol as any for Ferrer’s career. Ferrer is most proud of the fact that he has become known as a singer of boleros, particularly as he was never allowed to sing boleros in his earlier bands like Los Bocucos. “They told me I had a small voice better suited to fast numbers.” Juan de Marcos González suggests that part of the problem may have been Ferrer’s very strong Santiago accent.
There’s a saying in Cuba that everything begins in the East, and Santiago and its surrounding area have certainly been responsible for spawning most of Cuba’s musical genres. There is still an extraordinarily vibrant music scene there. Within a block you can hear traditional son groups (the forerunner of salsa), Africanstyle rumba drumming and elegant Frenchinfluenced danzon groups, playing utterly charming tunes from the 20s. The revolution also started in the East – as we drove past the Moncada Barracks where Castro’s first failed uprising took place in the 50s, Ferrer pointed out: “You can still see the bullet holes.”
Ideas from Santiago’s musical and cultural melting pot tend to be refined in the more sophisticated metropolis of Havana. Ferrer only came to Havana in 1957, when he was 30. On Buenos Hermanos, this cultural clash is illustrated by the presence of Chucho Valdes, the consummate urbane Havana musician. “They were a little wary of each other, with such different musical backgrounds, but in the end they got on and even wrote material together,” says Gold. The album includes a couple of old songs of Ferrer’s, which had been rejected when he’d presented them to his previous music groups.
Ferrer’s career was never easy. He had thought he might be a doctor but when his mother died, he had to survive selling sweets and popcorn on the streets. He set up his first band, Los Jovenos del Son, at the age of 13 and began playing at neighbourhood parties. He got his unusual name because his mother was “fascinated by Arabia” and his great-grandparents were French, African, Spanish and Chinese. “You can see from my face I have a little Chinese blood in me. Perhaps these mixtures also made the music here so different.” (An exotic moment in the new album is the Chinese cornet, which is occasionally heard in Santiago, on the title-track.)
“I met this musician who said if he has to play ‘Chan Chan’ one more time, he’ll die”
When he made it to Havana, he had to take jobs in the docks and as a construction worker at the Havana Hilton (renamed the Havana Libre after the 1959 revolution). He did get to sing with Beny Moré, one the great geniuses of Cuban music. But what were for many the glory days of Cuban music are still tinged with some bitter memories for Ferrer. “Blacks had to go through the back entrance of a club – and many clubs refused to have black singers.” He remembers all too clearly the humiliating slights: “Whereas a white musician would get 75 cents for an evening, I would only be paid five or 15 cents.” Ferrer had a series of bad breaks – such as his hit record ‘El Planetar de Bartolo’ in 1955 which went out without his name on it. “I began to feel there was some kind of curse on me.” Post-revolution, his group Los Bocucos toured the communist world – and he ended up stranded in Russia at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
Partly because Ferrer had a bad time in the 50s, he remains an enthusiast for the revolution and was thrilled that Castro invited him to his birthday party: “He is the first man in the world for me.” Castro was always more interested in sports than music, but even the Buena Vista success has been noticed by the authorities. In fact, the records are not just musical artefacts, but have had a significant social and economic impact. The film was a perfect advert for the country and thousands have been inspired to visit. When the Russians pulled out and Cuba desperately needed the money, it was tourism that kept the economy afloat. I’ve even heard it suggested that Buena Vista saved the revolution – an exaggeration maybe, but its impact shouldn’t be underestimated.
I’d heard that local Cuban hustlers (the non-stop pestering is an unfortunate by-product of the tourist boom) were offering to take tourists to the non-existent Buena Vista Social Club in Havana (although Gold told me there had been some discussions to open one) – and sure enough, someone offered to take me there. We went to a nondescript bar in old Havana, where there were at any rate some old musicians playing some of the music.
I discussed with Cooder the pros and cons of the Buena Vista phenomenon – he pointed out that as well as much-needed money going to Cuba, hundreds of musicians are now in work and there are racks of great Cuban music readily available in shops. In Cuba itself, the film was hardly seen and you can’t buy the World Circuit records. The depiction of run-down Havana was not an image the Cuban authorities wanted to project. The downside of the phenomenon is that the sheer numbers of tourists have disturbed the fragile cultural eco-system, and many musicians in cafés and bars feel they have to play Buena Vista numbers to please the tourists. “I met this musician who said if he has to play ‘Chan Chan’ one more time, he’ll die,” says Cooder, who feels that traditional music is becoming “ossified”, while the young Cuban hip-hop groups won’t be able to compete with the Americans “tooled up like Henry Ford”. It reminds me of the tragic proverb – you always kill the thing you love.
So is it the end of a dream? Curiously, the very first time I went to Havana in 1987, it was the week that the inventor of the chachachá, Enrique Jorrin died. The clubs went dark in his honour. Rúben González, who was in his band and with him when he died, told me he thought that would be the end of the old music. No one could have predicted Buena Vista. The story has had so many twists, and it may be that there are others to come.
Having been slightly depressed at the thought of Cuba slowly turning into some kind of theme park, my spirits were raised when I accompanied Ferrer to the conga school in the Ojos area of Santiago – the school had been going over a hundred years and seemed in fine shape. One positive impact has been for at least some of the Cooder, who feels that traditional music is becoming “ossified”, while the young Cuban hip-hop groups won’t be able to compete with the Americans “tooled up like Henry Ford”. It reminds me of the tragic proverb – you always kill the thing you love.
So is it the end of a dream? Curiously, the very first time I went to Havana in 1987, it was the week that the inventor of the chachachá, Enrique Jorrin died. The clubs went dark in his honour. Rúben González, who was in his band and with him when he died, told me he thought that would be the end of the old music. No one could have predicted Buena Vista. The story has had so many twists, and it may be that there are others to come. Having been slightly depressed at the thought of Cuba slowly turning into some kind of theme park, my spirits were raised when I accompanied Ferrer to the conga school in the Ojos area of Santiago – the school had been going over a hundred years and seemed in fine shape. One positive impact has been for at least some of the never heard our music before were dancing to our music every night. I believe the world will always love Cuban music.”
– This article originally appeared in the March/April 2003 (#17) issue of Songlines. Buy your copy here.