Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to become an overnight success. That paradox is the odd lot in life of Cuba’s Ibrahim Ferrer. He was an obscure background vocalist for 50 years and was part of the band led by the legendary Beny More, whose death at age 44 in 1963 had hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets of Havana for his funeral.
Where More was James Dean in his rapid rise to the top, early demise, and post-death legend status, Ferrer is the George Burns of Cuban music. For most of his life, he was a little-known sideman. Now, he is the torchbearer for the rich tradition of Cuban music.
Thankfully, musical nomad Ry Cooder saw fit to chronicle the Cuban musical tradition in various Buena Vista Social Club recordings. There have been several jewels, but Ferrer is the diamond with his sense of swing and rhythm that transcends language and culture. In 2000, at age 74, Ferrer won a Best New Artist Grammy in the Latin music category for his first album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer.
This follow-up follows much the same formula, with a bit more laid-back and muted feel. In a world of packaging, it is simply a man opening his mouth and singing with soul, ably backed by Cuban musicians Cachaito Lopez and Chucho Valdes and supporters ranging from the Manuel Galban to the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The beauty and justice in the irony of this late-life success is expressed most eloquently by Ferrer himself in the liner notes. He writes, “Many years ago I sang a song that went like this: ‘When will it be my turn’ If not next year, then maybe in the year 2000′ … Who would have guessed it would finally be my turn?”
Wilfred Langmaid, a priest in the diocese of Fredericton, is employed by the University of New Brunswick. Since 1981, he has been music critic for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.