Ibrahim Ferrer (February 20, 1927 – August 6, 2005) was a popular Afro-Cuban singer and musician in Cuba. He performed with many musical groups including the Conjunto Sorpresa, Orquesta Chepin-Choven and Afro-Cuban All Stars. Later in life, Ferrer became a member of the internationally successful Buena Vista Social Club.
Ibrahim Ferrer 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 bestselling Buena Vista Social Club, and then as a soloist in his own right.
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 Moré, 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 the project 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 sang on Dos Gardenias, a bolero that he learned with Beny Moré in the 1950s, and 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.
Here's "Como Fue" from above album.
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 Portuendo, Silencio) and Buenos Hermanos (2003, with a fine slow ballad, Mil Congojas).
On stage, he was a dapper, moustachio'ed figure, sporting a cap and surrounded by Cuba's finest musicians, from Manuel Galban on guitar to bass player Cachaito Lopez. Nick 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."
His frailty was becoming evident on stage in recent years, but he was still a fine, sensitive singer. He died at age 78 of multiple organ failure on August 6, 2005 at CIMEQ hospital in Havana (Cuba) soon after completing another European tour that featured a string of British dates, including an appearance at Kenwood House on London's Hampstead Heath at the end of July. He returned home to Cuba to record yet another solo album; it was to be devoted to the boleros that he had rehearsed in his latest shows.
Ferrer sold over 6m albums, with Buena Vista or as a soloist, but he said that his dream was to record the boleros album. Later in 2005 he had planned another extensive European tour, which would include a show at London's Barbican, but he died after returning from a European tour. He was buried in the Colón Cemetery, Havana.
Ibrahim Ferrer and a band featuring Orlando 'Cachaito' Lopez, Roberto Fonseca and Manuel Galban perform 'Perfidia' from his third and last album 'Mi Sueno'.