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November 1999

Ibrahim Ferrer
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer
Nonesuch Records

From the life of a former singing icon to shoe shine man in Havana, to international star, the saga of the sweet, supple vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer's late-blooming career is, by now, fairly well-known, thanks to Ry Cooder. To sum it up: Cooder found himself in Havana three years ago, following his son-pulsed heart to piece together the tribute to living masters of son music called Buena Vista Social Club, a gathering of aging and mostly neglected older musicians of the old school Cuban music orbit. Voila, a sensation, a world music hit surpassing everyone's ambitions.

Cooder went back down last spring, this time with German-cum-Los Angeleno director Wim Wenders and camera crew in tow, working on the recently-released film Buena Vista Social Club, probably one of the finest music documentaries ever made. The pretext for the visit was to produce Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (Nonesuch/ World Circuit 79532; 52:11), the 72-year-old singer's first official solo album, just released, but it's hard to listen to the end result-as beautiful as it is on purely musical terms-without pondering the larger context.

The original venture has already spawned solo albums by individuals, including Ruben Gonzalez and Elias Ochoda, with more in the works, but Ferrer's album is a cut above. He's a sweet-toned marvel of a singer, with a precision and understated soulfulness of delivery that wins your heart, even when you can't follow the lyrical thread. Some kind of ineffable wisdom seems encoded into his timbre and vibrato: the sign of a good singer, whose appeal you can't quite put your finger on.

Producer Cooder's guitar plays an understated role here, as on the original Club album, with well-placed long tones on slide guitar to counterbalance the Cuban twang of Manuel Galban's richly textured, throbbing, vibrato-laden chords woven into the arrangements. The production values are humble, with minimal miking and no fix-it in the mix aesthetic, creating an open, live sound that lets us into Havana's Egrem Studio (again, seeing it in the film enhances the listening experience).

He opens, saucily, with the late blind son legend and tres player, Arsenio Rodriguez' "Bruca Manigua," and later applies vocal heat, alongside octogenarian wizard Gonzalez' flamboyant piano solo on Rodriguez' "Mami Me Gusto." Ferrer also fares nicely in duet with female vocalist Omara Portuondo on the wonderfully lithe and haunting "Silencio-" replete with a few Cooder glissando swoops up the fretboard and a solo over pizzicato strings. On a more rhythmically up note, he also sings a duet on "Marieta" with Teresita Garcia Caturia.

Emotional warmth makes its presence known on Ferrer's sleeve. He rises to the energetic occasion of upbeat tunes, but Armando Medina's slow, sultry bolero "Nuestra Ultima Cita" brings out something deeper in him, a tale spinner's ease of expression.

Blockbusters in the world music world often come with suspicious elements attached, but this saga keeps impressing us as a guileless phenom that was meant to be: certainly, Ferrer's album is a prize, fulfilling hints of promise from his role in the original album. And if you haven't seen the Wenders film, walk, don't run.

Originally published in November 1999
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