Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer: 1927-2005

Ibrahim Ferrer, the mild-mannered singer of the Buena Vista Social Club group that brought him world fame late in life, died Aug. 6 in Havana, Cuba. He was 78.

He had been a star in Cuba for decades, but it wasn’t until the hugely popular 1997 album that most music fans in the U.S. heard Ferrer’s golden voice. Thanks to the album and the 1999 documentary film of the same name, Ferrer finally got some worldwide exposure. He eventually issued two solo releases. In 2000 at the age of 72, he earned a Latin Grammy as best “new” artist.

Despite fading health, Ferrer, who suffered from emphysema, continued to perform. During his latest tour in Europe, which took him to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and to Britain, Holland, Austria, France and Spain, Ferrer sang a collection of boleros he had planned to release next year. Known for his trademark cap and gray moustache, Ferrer died after returning ill from the tour. “He was taken to hospital when he got back and his condition worsened,” manager Daniel Florestan said.

A singer of Cuba’s traditional son music, Ferrer was born at a social club dance in Santiago, Cuba, on Feb. 20, 1927, after his mother unexpectedly went into labor. He began singing professionally at the age of 14, later performing regularly with the great Cuban bandleader Pacho Alonso. He also made guest appearances with other legendary names, including Benny More and the Orquesta de Chepin. By the early 1980s Ferrer had left the musical scene, but he came out of retirement to perform with the Buena Vista group.

It was Texas guitarist Ry Cooder’s driving interest in world music that led him to Cuba where he assembled the cream of vintage Cuban musicians who became known as the Buena Vista Social Club. The aging musicians were catapulted to an unexpected second career and international fame that grew further with the film of the same name by German director Wim Wenders. Two of the group’s members, singer Compay Segundo and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, died in 2003.

Buena Vista guitarist Manuel Galban said of Ferrer: “I felt like he was my brother. He was a great musician and a great companion.” Renowned Cuban musician Chucho Valdes, speaking of Ferrer’s death, said “We have lost an icon of Cuban culture.” He called Ferrer an extraordinary artist, close friend and brother whose work remains among the best of Cuban music.

Ferrer was buried at Havana’s historic Colon Cemetery on Aug. 8. Friends, relatives and fans came to pay their final respects while a recording of his tune “Prefiero que tu vayas” (I prefer you go) was played.

Lifelong friend Eduardo Rosillo gave the eulogy. Ferrer was “a truly great singing figure on a universal scale, but never stopped being humble, accessible and human,” said Rosillo. “He was like Cuban music: very spontaneous, very rich.”

On reporting the death of Ferrer, the Cuban newspaper Granma stated, “Luckily, the loss of Ibrahim does not mean silence. He will continue singing boleros until the end of time.”