It was the obituary I dreaded: Ibrahim Ferrer, the dulcet tenor with the bespectacled mien and the cap he always wore brim forward. A dark-skinned, lanky man who sang backup in Beny More’s band, who had traveled from Santiago’s carnival floats to the concert halls of Europe, who had had island-wide hits in Cuba with Chepin y su Orquesta Oriental, Pacho Alonso and Los Bocucos. Infamously, he had been shining shoes at the Havana seawall to supplement a scrawny pension when Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos found him.
Once Buena Vista Social Club became a household name, critics dubbed Ferrer an angel. Once witnessed, it was hard not to repeat such hype. The Afro-Cuban All Stars concert in Raleigh in July 2001 was my first Indy gig. When the news came down that Ibrahim Ferrer had died in the middle of the afternoon of Aug. 6, 2005, I busted up.
Music history is full of shoe shines and cab drivers. Most remain workers in the vineyard; only the lucky few get plucked from obscurity, but when they do, it sure makes good PR. Ferrer had eight years to bask in the earthly limelight before he left this world as unexpectedly as he came into it. Born in the middle of a dance in San Luis, a town 20 miles north of Santiago, he was a “natural child,” as he tells it in the Wim Wenders film. When his mother died, the 12-year-old Ferrer went to the big town and hustled the streets of Santiago to make a living. By age 14, he had joined the ranks of that city’s professional almsmen: musicians. He had a career, but always in the shadow of other great romantic singers of the era–Ibrahim Ferrer, second voice, coro. From his mother he inherited his santo: San Lazaro, the patron saint of poverty.
Honey, perfume, rum, and the occasional meringue were the offerings he made in his living room shrine to the saint of beggars, a bishop who heals the sick, known on the Afro-Cuban side as Babaluaye. In the 1998 film, Ferrer touchingly pleads to the gods for a little more time to enjoy his newfound fame before he dies. The bolero played at his funeral on Monday therefore seems a strange choice, but was a favorite of his: “Mil Congojas,” filled with bitter resignation and the line “I prefer that you go.” Ferrer’s main bone of contention was that bandleaders rarely let him sing boleros. The apparition of Ry Cooder opened the door to that dream. Ferrer’s last tour showcased songs projected to be released in 2006, according to Prensa Latina, as Mi Sueño: A Bolero Songbook.
In an apt analogy for his dream deferred, the title track of Ferrer’s last album, Buenos Hermanos, pokes fun at the youngest brother who goes hungry because all the older children have beaten him to the cooking pot. Chucho Valdes called Ferrer “my incredible brother” the day after his death, and the two co-wrote a memorable song on the 2003 release. “La Musica Cubana” is a form of ancestor worship, a trope in Cuban music: Ferrer lists all the great musicians who came before, from Abelardo Barroso to Beny More, laced with the refrain we will remember them. Now, one more name will have to be added to the list.
Ibrahim Ferrer, te recordaremos.