Buena Vista singer whose passing ends a golden era in Cuban music

 

Ibrahim Ferrer: Ibrahim Ferrer, who has died in Havana aged 78, was one of the greatest of Cuban singers. A charming and humble man, he was blessed with a voice that could tackle anything from Cuba's romantic ballads, boleros, to the up-tempo improvised son dance songs that were the speciality of his early career.

Ferrer established his worldwide reputation late in life, after a transformation of his fortunes. In the 1990s he moved from impoverished retirement, in which he supplemented his tiny pension by earning occasional money as an elderly shoeshine "boy" or selling lottery tickets, to the concert halls of the world, first as lead male singer with the best-selling Buena Vista Social Club, and then as a soloist.

His frailty was becoming evident on stage in recent years, but he was still a fine, sensitive singer. After a European tour he returned home to Cuba to record yet another solo album that was to be devoted to the boleros which he had rehearsed in his latest shows.

Ferrer's extraordinary switchback career began when he started singing professionally as a teenager. He was born, so he always insisted, at a social club dance in San Luis, just outside Santiago, where his mother suddenly went into labour. She died when he was 12 and he then supported himself as a street vendor, carpenter and docker, before his move into music.

At first he played with a cousin's amateur band and then moved on to work with Santiago's Orquesta Chepin-Choven. They became popular across the island, and Ferrer was their singer at the time of their greatest hit, El Platanal de Bartolo. Moving to Havana, he worked with some of Cuba's finest singers, including the great Beny More, and sang with Los Bocucos, famous for their percussive dance songs.

By the early 1990s he had retired and lived in a little flat in Havana. His life suddenly changed thanks to the passionate Cuban music enthusiast, composer and band leader, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, whose ideas about reviving classic Cuban music styles led to the project that was the Buena Vista Social Club.

At first it did not involve Ferrer, but during the recording of the club's celebrated album, nine years ago, producer Ry Cooder needed a softer voice for the number Dos Gardenias. Juan de Marcos said he knew just the man.

Nick Gold, the album's executive producer, said: "He dashed out, and then turned up with Ibrahim. The other musicians all knew him and started playing a song from Santiago in his honour. Ibrahim just fell in with what was going on, and about five minutes later he started recording."

What followed is music history. Ferrer became a key member of the group, taking many of the male lead vocals on the album.

He took the lead on his own song, De Camino a la Vereda, influenced by his strong belief in the Santeria religion. He also showed his skill in duets, notably with his female counterpart, Omara Portuondo. Both on stage, and in the Wim Wenders film, their songs together were show-stoppers.

With Portuondo and other members of the club, he went on to enjoy a successful solo career, recording two solo albums both produced by Cooder: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (1999, with a classic duet with Portuondo, Silencio) and Buenos Hermanos (2003, with a fine slow ballad, Mil Congojas).

On stage, he was a dapper, moustachioed figure, sporting a cap and surrounded by Cuba's finest musicians, from Manuel Galban on guitar to bass player Cachaito Lopez.

Gold described Ferrer's work as "the most beautiful singing I'd ever heard. He was the last of the classic bolero singers, but he could also handle up-tempo, improvised material. A very rare talent." Ferrer sold more than six million albums, with Buena Vista or as a soloist, but he said that his dream was to record the boleros album.

His death, along with those of Buena Vista singer/guitarist Compay Segundo and pianist Ruben Gonzalez a couple of years ago, marks the end of a golden era in Cuban music.

Recently he said he was still surprised by how his life had so radically changed:

"That people want me to come and sing all around the world, that's a great blessing."

Ibrahim Ferrer, born February 20th, 1927; died August 6th, 2005