He was my favorite singer.
His lashing voice, striking son and bolero songs, and individualistic humor came to life in Ry Cooder’s 1999 Buena Vista Social Club film, which while avoiding direct politics, was unintentionally the most damning large-scale film against castro ever made.
Ferrer was a real Cuban who lived and suffered through the castro regime, same as everyone, and for many years was driven from pre-castro-era stardom to obscurity by castro’s state planners, the blotting-paper-faced communist bureaucrats who wouldn’t know a great singer if he was right in front of them. castro’s gray mediocrities consigned the great talent of Ibrahim Ferrer to shining shoes. That’s right, castro forced him to give up his golden singing and instead made him a shoe-shine boy. It tells you just about all you need to know about the nature of the castro regime.
In Cooder’s movie, Ferrer was extremely humble, questioning, open, and exuberant. He was passionate about Cuban music – and dancing, too. He played checkers on the patio. He loved Cuban traditional religion, and in his shabby apartment, he showed his statues of Santa Barbara and other santos to the filmmakers. Of course he was a threat. But after Cooder’s movie, even they could no longer ignore him.
I have his albums and every single off other musicians’ records I can get my hands on, and I notice his work improves in succession. It’s vibrant, spirited, and highly disciplined. You can tell that this is a great talent even if you do not know much about Cuban music. His talent is that obvious.
He was incredibly good in so many ways.
I love the sexy rhythms and lilting low undertow of Guaguanco Callejero from his Buenos Hermanos album, exuberantly extolling the beauty of his black woman. We all love that black woman he’s hailing like a goddess – ‘iave maria, morena!’
In No Tiene Teleranya, we hear the song of scorn of a spider caught in its own web, with Ferrer’s voice sharply moving against the amazingly rhythmic slack-key guitar that really draws you in. It sounds like surfer music – something that reminds you that Cuba was a major influence on the Southern California surf music of the 1960s.
But I especially love the subtle undercurrents of cutting political putdowns in some of Ferrer’s songs, things I hear in his voice and read through his lyrics.
In his Oye el consejo from his Buenos Hermanos album, he, at age 76, manages to convincingly portray the spirit of a 16-year-old boy who’s being nagged by his oppressive mother as he longs to be free and experience Havana. She yells that he never listens to her. And he doesn’t. Sound political? Maybe it was.
The 1940s-era song, Buenos Hermanos, from his Buenos Hermanos album, is mysterious and stirring and evocative even if you cannot understand a word. But when you read those lyrics, those biting sarcastic lyrics about how ‘big brother takes care of me, giving me crumbs and bones and gristle and fat’ then you know that, even though there is the political cover of the 1940s, this is a true anthem of the real Cuba under castro. And sung with such heart.
He was taken too young. I hope to god it wasn’t the air-conditioning, the castroite power outages suffocating Cuba as I write this. I hope not that.
Rest in peace, son of Cuba.