|Worldwide fame for Cuban singer Ibrahim "he-of-the-Kangol-cap" Ferrer born in Santiago in 1927 came late - with 1997's stint on Ry Cooder's critically acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club. It sold 5 Million copies and coaxed him out of a retirement shining shoes, selling lottery tickets and surviving on a stinty pension. His 1999 solo album Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer won him a Best New Artist at the first annual Latin Grammys in 2000. A septuagenarian as new artist? If you consider that Ferrer performed for more than 20 years with Pacho Alonso's famed Havana orchestra Los Bobucos and appeared also with Orquesta de Chepín-Chóven, Orquesta Ritmo Oriental and Beny Moré, you'll appreciate the irony: A 77-year old singer finally witnesses the curse of elusive artistic recognition lifted to enjoy unprecedented fame in the winter of his life. Quips Ferrer: "Who would have guessed it would finally be my turn?" which also happens to be the title of his song "Cunado me toca a mí?" recorded 20 years ago.
Once the colorful ensemble of the Buena Vista Club had put him on the map as a celebrated front man, and within a mere few years after touring with the Afro-Cuban All Stars in 1996 where he fronted with Rubén González, Ferrer suddenly performed for enthusiastic crowds around the globe -- Royal Albert Hall, Orchard Hall in Tokyo, Sidney Opera House -- selling out ten 10,000-seat auditoriums in Japan just two years ago and playing to 28,000 dancing German under rainy Munich skies. With his mother going into labour while attending a social club dance, one could perhaps say that Ibrahim Ferrer was predestined to fame, with music literally in his blood - if he could just weather the dry spells and hang in.
Asking for a softer voice suitable for a down-tempo ballad, Ry Cooder's request during a Buena Vista session seven years ago proved the decisive turning point. Juan de Marcos González suggested him to Cooder and looked up Ferrer in his house. Wanting to take a bath first, the signer actually left the shoes he was shining. Gonzales pressed that no, they were recording already at Engrem Studios and needed him right quick. Seeing himself surrounded by his peers -- Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Barbarito Torres, trumpeteer Guajiro Mirabal -- Ferrer blended in perfectly and ended up singing most the numbers, and finally, to his great satisfaction, not the uptempo guarachas his past had seen fit to limit him to but his favored boleros. The rest is history.
Ibrahim Ferrer's toured extensively for the last four years, upgraded his former crammed quarters in Havana to a mansion befitting his stature and appeared on Damon Albarn's Gorillaz and Orchestra Baobab's Specialist in All Styles. His Santería patron saint is Babalú-Ayé as San Lázaro to whom he has dedicated his personal altar. Listening to his latest, Buenos Hermanos, the very human qualities of humility, of a boundless capacity for joy and that seasoned maturity which only come at the end of a life lived well, are potently tangible. One is touched by the same spirit that exuded from Satchmo's voice - keen artistic intelligence, playfulness, greatness of heart. The album is one huge helping of elegant son/danson into which are mixed non-traditional but seamless elements. It's all served up by the relaxed casualness that's the hallmark of mastery. Long past needing to impress, it's now simply in the service of expressing gratitude and delight, about playing with fellow musicians to an appreciative audience while taking charming liberties.
Backed by a dream-team including Manuel Galbán (guitar), 'Cachaito' Lopéz (bass), Ry Cooder (guitar), 'Guajiro' Mirabal, Jon Hassell, Luis Alemañy, and Alejandro Pichardo (trumpets), Cucho Valdés (piano) and various backup singers including The Blind Boys of Alabama, strings and percussionists, Buenos Hermanos is the musical equivalent to Rick's Café Americain. Set in Havana rather than Casablanca, it's host to seasoned characters with colorful stories gathering in the sunset period of a tropical local that will recede into the annals of history when its last living representatives have followed Compay Segundo into the Great Beyond. Before that happens, wiry smiling Ibrahim Ferrer and his expressive lyrical tenor voice remain our tour guide, into a Cuba that remains alive only in his memories and that of his old time compatriots: Perfume de gardenias, es rumor de un palmar. Kick of your shoes and socks, roll up your slacks ankle-high and shuffle your feet to the gentle magic rhythms and call-and-answer choruses of Cuba while Ibrahim eggs us on: Vamos a bailar ahora, morenita divino, va baila - let's dance now, divine black woman, come on!
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