Ibrahim Ferrer: a lesson in greatness

Summer 2003

Review by Dave Willetts

In his short dedication at the end of this album, Ibrahim Ferrer talks about a song he sang many years ago which said ‘When will it be my turn? If not next year, then maybe in the year 2000…’

Thanks to the Buena Vista project, Ferrer’s prediction was proved right, and on the evidence of this phenomenal album he is still making up for lost time. A listen to any of his recordings from the 1940’s and ‘50’s (many still available on the excellent Tumbao label) will demonstrate that his voice is as clear and powerful as it has always been, whether he is tackling sones, rumbas or the heartrending ballads for which he is rightly world famous.

Now that he is at last receiving the respect he deserves, Ferrer could be forgiven for sitting back and repeating past successes. For most of us this might be enough given that he appeared regularly alongside virtually every one of Cuba’s best musicians and singers, including the greatest of them all, Beny More- they all receive a namecheck here on the track ‘Musica Cubana’, one of a number of excellent Chucho Valdez compositions on the album.

But this is no sentimental trip through ferrer’s musical past. The title track of the album, ‘Buenos Hermanos’ turns out to be Miguel Matamoros’ ironic and funny tale of a family arguing over food and clothes in times of hardship. Nothing could be more relevant to Cubans today-

‘Oh what a family,

They’ll even take your shoes

Take the trousers

Even the t-shirts

They’ll sell the lot….’

This is typical of an album which Ferrer never allows to slip into easy tourist fare. Throughout, the choice of songs is glorious, encompassing some of Cuba’s greatest writers such as Ernesto Lecuona and Ignacio Pinero; the arrangements are brilliant and often surprising. Ferrer even finds space to include his own song ‘Teach Him a Lesson’ which deals with serious issues of street disorder.

The master stroke of the whole project is the inclusion of the inspirational Manuel Galban on guitar and keyboards. Another musician who has already hit the greatest heights- he was director of the brilliant Los Zafiros – his are the first notes heard on the album and his playing throughout sets the tone for a work which is as experimental as it is fun and funky.

Ibrahim Ferrer has toured the music of Cuba across the world; on the evidence of this superb album he is proving to be a pioneering artist with the ability to take Cuban music to places it has never been before.

A note of sadness attached to this album is that this is apparently the last time that Ry Cooder will be allowed to ‘trade with the enemy’- such is the callous approach of the US authorities that they prefer the sound of cluster bombs to great music such as this.

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