Born in 1927 near Santiago, Cuba. Addresses: Record company--Nonesuch Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
After nearly a lifetime of dogged, unglamorous work in the music industry, the Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer rose to fame in his late sixties as a lead vocalist with the internationally successful Buena Vista Social Club. The humble, soft-spoken singer--perhaps the least flamboyant member of the Afro-Cuban music group--has charmed audiences around the world with his smooth, expressive voice and heartfelt sincerity. After the 1997 debut of both the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album and hit documentary film by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Ferrer's face and voice became synonymous with the resurgence of big-band Cuban music. The singer went on to release two solo albums: 1999's Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer and 2003's Buenos Hermanos. In 2000, at age 73, Ferrer won the Best New Artist award at the first annual Latin Grammys.
Ferrer was born and raised near the city of Santiago, in eastern Cuba, a region known for its music. Although his name recalls his mother's fascination with Arabia, his ancestry includes French, African, Spanish, and Chinese great-grandparents. "My mother was pregnant with me at a dance," Ferrer told Lorraine Ali of Newsweek, "and when the music began, she started having contractions. I think I was even singing inside the belly of my mother."
As a child, Ferrer survived a nearly fatal case of tetanus. Although he once dreamed of becoming a doctor, his mother died when he was 12 years old, and he had to work to help support his family. At first young Ferrer took to the streets selling sweets and popcorn. A year later he and his cousin started a musical group, Los Jóvenes del Son (The Young Men of Sound). Playing at local parties, Ferrer made money for the first time as a singer. He went on to join a series of local Cuban big bands throughout the 1940s and 1950s, including Conjunto Sorpresa, Conjunto Wilson, and Pacho Alonso's orchestra, Maravilla de Beltran. All told, Ferrer would sing with Alonso's band for several decades, though he also performed as a guest with other big-name Cuban groups.
With Orquesta Chepin-Choven, Santiago's top group, Ferrer recorded the 1955 hit single "El Platanar de Bartolo" (Bartolo's Banana Field). The song led to some local renown for Ferrer--but since the single's international release didn't credit Ferrer, he was denied more widespread recognition. "I began to feel there was maybe a curse on me," he told Peter Culshaw of London's Sunday Telegraph.
In 1957 Ferrer relocated to Havana to sing with the Orquesta Ritmo Oriental, as well as with one of Cuba's most celebrated musicians, Beny Moré. Later Ferrer reunited with Pacho Alonso's orchestra, which had also changed its base to Havana, taking the new name of Los Bocucos. With Alonso's group Ferrer toured socialist countries, including Russia, in 1962. Yet the singer often took jobs--including a stint as a construction worker and a job at the docks--to supplement his modest musician's salary.
Although he longed to sing the classic boleros (love ballads) for which he later became famous, Ferrer was told his voice was best suited to dance tunes. Greatly disappointed, Ferrer began to feel underappreciated by and disillusioned with the music world. By the 1980s Ferrer was still singing with Los Bocucos, but he was supplementing his income by shining shoes on the streets of Havana. He left Los Bocucos in 1991, feeling that a fulfilling career in music had somehow eluded him.
In the late 1990s Ferrer's career underwent an amazing reversal. Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos and American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder collaborated in an effort to bring together an all-star cast of Cuban musicians. Although Ferrer was excluded from the original lineup of singers, during the first recording sessions Cooder requested a soft-voiced singer who could perform a bolero. De Marcos tracked down Ferrer, who at first declined the invitation. "I wasn't interested," Ferrer is quoted in his biography on the Nonesuch Records website. "I had suffered a lot through music. I felt ... I don't know how to say it ... disappointed by my life in music. But [de Marcos] went on until I agreed to record a number with him."
Ferrer ended up singing almost all the songs on the Afro-Cuban All Stars' 1997 debut album, Toda Cuba le Gusta. In that same year the group recorded the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album, the culmination of Cooder's and de Marcos's efforts, with Ferrer leading on vocals. A smash success, the album went platinum, bringing fame to Ferrer and his ragtag group of collaborators.
Two years later, Wim Wenders released the popular documentary Buena Vista Social Club, which told the story of Cuban music from the golden age of 1940s and 1950s big-band to the Latin movement of today. Images of Ferrer and a soundtrack showcasing his soulful falsetto voice permeated the film, making the 72-year-old crooner a veritable poster boy for the revived Cuban-music movement. Along with the film came Ferrer's solo recording debut, 1999's Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, which sold 1.5 million copies. Worldwide tours followed for the singer, who had been shining shoes only two years earlier. "It took me a while to acknowledge I was good because for such a long time I was being told I wasn't," Ferrer told Newsweek's Ali. "It's only recently that I began to accept that maybe there is something in there that I can give to people."
At the first Latin Grammy Awards in 2000, Ferrer won a Grammy for Best New Artist. Three years later he released his second solo album, Buenos Hermanos (Good Brothers), also produced by Ry Cooder. The American embargo against Cuba nearly hindered the album's creation, but a memo from departing American President Bill Clinton (a Buena Vista Social Club fan) helped the musicians bypass bureaucracy.
The "good brothers" of the album's title refer perhaps to Ferrer's guest stars, which include the pianist Chucho Valdez, the accordionist Flaco Jimenez, and the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama, collaborations that produce a more international (rather than purely Cuban) sound. Yet the traditional Cuban boleros, which underscore Ferrer's warm, joyous singing, are some of the album's most successful tracks. By May of 2003 Buenos Hermanos was number one on the world-music charts.
Ferrer's late-blossoming fame has taken him around the world. His touring band, Orquestra Ibrahim Ferrer, features some of Cuba's most vibrant musical talents. With his fellow musicians, Ferrer has contributed enormously to the resurgence of Afro-Cuban music internationally. "I have been waiting for my moment," the 75-year-old Ferrer told Laura Emerick of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. "And now my turn has finally come."
by Wendy Kagan
Ibrahim Ferrer's Career
Started performing at parties, age 13; sang with Cuban big bands of 1940s and 1950s, including Pacho Alonso's orchestra; recorded hit single "El Platanar de Bartolo" with Orquesta Chepin-Choven, 1955; sang with Havana-based Orquesta Ritmo Oriental and Beny Moré, late 1950s; toured with Pacho Alonso's Los Bocucos, early 1960s; retired from Los Bocucos, 1991; invited to sing with Buena Vista Social Club, 1997; released solo debut Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, 1999; released second album, Buenos Hermanos, 2003.
Ibrahim Ferrer's Awards
Latin Grammy Awards, Best New Artist, 2000, and Best Traditional Tropical Album for Buenos Hermanos, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer World, 1999.
- Buenos Hermanos Nonesuch, 2003.
- With others
- Buena Vista Social Club Egrem, 1997.
- A Toda le Gusta Egrem, 1997.
- Tierra Caliente: Roots of Buena Vista Egrem, 2000.
- Mis Tiempos con Chepin Egrem, 2002.
February 8, 2004: Ferrer won the Grammy Award for best traditional tropical Latin album, for Buenos Hermanos. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
August 6, 2005: Ferrer died on August 6, 2005, in Havana, Cuba. He was 78. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/06/ferrer.obit.ap/index.html, August 18, 2005.
- Chicago Sun-Times, February 11, 2003, p. 36.
- Newsweek, May 5, 2003, p. 63.
- Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), February 1, 2003, p. 45.
- Sunday Telegraph (London, England), November 10, 2001, p. 45.
- "Ibrahim Ferrer," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 23, 2003).
- "Ibrahim Ferrer," Nonesuch Records, http://www.nonesuch.com/Hi_Band/bio.cfm?artist_filename=ferrer.gif (May 26, 2003).