Havana sunrise

The unlikely blooming of Buena Vista's Ibrahim Ferrer

It's a typical sweltering summer day in Havana. The streets teem with children, stray dogs nose around empty door stoops, motorists tear across the main arteries of the city in ancient American machines. Ibrahim Ferrer, the 75-year-old sonero made famous in recent years by his appearance on the Buena Vista Social Club album and related projects, sits bare-chested on the porch of his new house in the Plaza district, a strand of gold hanging from his neck. His eyes beam blissfully as he pets his lapdog Prince and chats with his wife. Despite his age, Ibrahim is sharp as a tack. When he talks his voice is musical, lively, as if on stage crooning a bolero.

"My mother died when I was 12," he says, "and I was forced to go to work. Before the revolution, my life was candela. I sold newspapers. I sold peanuts at the movie theater. I was a carpenter, a painter, I worked in cement. Many things. And also, I worked in music."

Ferrer's career began in 1941 when he was 13. He formed a group in Santiago called Los Jovenes de Son. He runs through his curriculum vitae in seconds flat: a singer with Los Jovenes Unidos, with Conjunto GÜiso, with Conjunto Sorpresa, with Marvilla de Beltran, finally working his way into the house band at the Cabaret Copa Club in the early '50s.

"After 1955, I started working with Orquesta Chepín in Santiago, and sometimes we would play here in Havana. But by 1957 we played only Havana, and from there I worked with Beny More until the triumph of the revolution."

As he talks, a drum throbs subtly in the distance. It's always there, that throbbing of the drum. And if it ever stops, Cuba will quickly dissolve into the ocean and vanish without a trace.

Actually, this almost occurred in 1991 when the Soviet Union left Cuba to drift on its own. By 1994, the economy had completely bottomed out — the average salary plummeted from $30 per month to $1, enough to buy 3 pounds of rice. Desperate times. But the music held it together. Call it pure luck or a miracle, but in December 1995, Juan de Marcos González, founder of veteran Cuban band Sierra Maestra, was in England recording a new album when he ran an idea past music producer Nick Gold.

"I had the idea for years," González explains in his Havana studio. "And when I went to the different record companies they said, 'Marcos, you're crazy! Why would you want to put together a bunch of old guys and make an album that will only sell two copies?' This is what they said. Until I met Nick."

Gold immediately agreed to record the album, and in 1996, the Buena Vista phenomenon was born, beginning with Marcos' project, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, which mixed surviving musicians of the 1940s and '50s with younger Cuban talent. This quickly spawned the Buena Vista Social Club, produced by Gold and guitarist Ry Cooder, who used the same musicians hand-picked by González. One of these was Ferrer, a little-known bolero singer whose career ended in the mid-'60s, who was now moving refrigerators for a living, and who González tracked down and literally plucked right off the street.

Between the original recording and all the solo spin-offs, to date Buena Vista has sold more than eight million copies worldwide. With the success came a renewed global love affair with Cuba and a flood of tourists (now to the tune of 1.8 million per year), whose dollars rescued Cuba's crushed economy.

Foreigners travel to Cuba because the sirens of Buena Vista lure them. And singer Ibrahim Ferrer knows this intuitively. His 1999 debut solo disc, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer — a compilation of '40s and '50s Cuban classics — alone sold 1.5 million copies and won a Latin Grammy. And his upcoming March 18 release, Buenos Hermanos (World Circuit/Nonesuch) — including renditions of Rafael Hernandez's bolero "Perfume de Gardenia" and Ignacio Pineiro's son "Guaguanco Callejero" — is bound to do equally as well.

Oddly, out of all the Buena Vista alumni, the world loves Ferrer most, while native Cubans know him least. The likely reason is that there's no market for Buena Vista in Cuba. The older people won't pay for a cover of Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney" when they can hear the original on the crackly Radio Rebelde. And the young people have no time for "that old stuff." But foreigners will drop $500 in a scalper's palm for an Ibrahim Ferrer ticket without blinking an eye. He's got a bigger non-Cuban fan base than Lecuona ever had while alive.

Still, his recent fame hasn't changed Ferrer a bit. He's still the same Ibrahim, he says. Generous with his fans and those closest to him, practical, charming on and off stage.

"Did you see the movie?" asks Ferrer, referring to the Wim Wenders documentary Buena Vista Social Club. "My old apartment was the one shown in the film. My sister is living there now. It was a tiny little place. We had the whole family living cramped together and we needed a bigger house to accommodate us."

Though he could have easily bought a mansion in the upscale Miramar district and been rubbing elbows with the elite, he chose to stay close to the barrio, the people. Despite his success, he still carries his water to the house, and he doesn't have a phone. After all, when you've gone 70 years without money and fame, it's not likely to change you at that point. One exception: Inside his home, a pastel wall sparkles with a half-dozen framed gold and platinum records, a couple Grammys.

"Fame is fame," he says. "Things change. It's natural. I may live in a different house, but I eat the same food, I drink the same rum, I have the same visitors and neighbors. I sing the same music. I'm the same person."


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