Ibrahim Ferrer's Late-Rising Star

Felix Contreras offers an appreciation of Cuban vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who died over the weekend. Ferrer played a starring role in the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of musicians re-discovered by music fans around the world. Their recordings, concerts and a popular documentary helped revive a classic Afro-Cuban musical style called son.

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(Soundbite of song)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

ED GORDON, host:

Cuban vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer died over the weekend in Havana, Cuba. Ferrer played a starring role in one of the feel-good stories of the 1990s, the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of long-forgotten Cuban musicians rediscovered by music fans around the world.

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BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: Their recordings, concert appearances and a popular documentary helped revive a classic Afro-Cuban music style called son. NPR's Felix Contreras has this appreciation.

FELIX CONTRERAS reporting:

In the documentary film "Buena Vista Social Club," Ibrahim Ferrer proudly displays a walking staff that his mother received as a gift from a group of visitors from Africa.

(Soundbite of "Buena Vista Social Club")

Mr. IBRAHIM FERRER: (Foreign language spoken)

CONTRERAS: He explains the ritual importance of that walking stick to his mother's practice of West African Santeria. It also explains the African influence in Cuban culture. When you see the faces of Buena Vista musicians, you see Yoruba, Arara and Carabali, ancient West African traditions still very much alive in Cuba and wherever black Cubans live.

(Soundbite of song)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: You can also hear those traditions in son, that laidback mixture of Africa and Spain. Cuba's most popular music acts--Benny More, Celia Cruz and some of the Buena Vista musicians--were also Afro-Cuban musicians who reached their zenith in the 1950s when son was `the' sound of Cuba. Ibrahim Ferrer had been fronting popular dance orchestras for over 30 years when the Cuban sound modernized and became known as salsa among dancers on the island and in the clubs of New York in the 1970s and '80s. Old school was out and Ferrer and some of his contemporaries became cultural footnotes.

(Soundbite of song)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of "Buena Vista Social Club")

Mr. FERRER: (Foreign language spoken)

CONTRERAS: In the film, Ferrer explains it was music producer Juan de Marcos, a black Cuban, who helped American musician Ry Cooder assemble the musicians who became the Buena Vista Social Club. De Marcos helped Cooder imagine a fictional space in which Africa and Spain mingled on the dance floor.

(Soundbite of song)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: While many of his generation had successful careers after they left Cuba, Ferrer stayed, fell out of favor, and ended up shining shoes to augment his pension. Politics had split Cubans into those who stayed and those who left. Late in the film, Ferrer was walking the streets of New York between rehearsals for Buena Vista's debut at Carnegie Hall. Like any first-time visitor, he cranes his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, the abundance of material goods and crowds on the streets. He also seems to be looking for traces of Africa in the black faces he passes.

(Soundbite of "Buena Vista Social Club")

Mr. FERRER: (Foreign language spoken)

CONTRERAS: He tells the camera he is taken by the beauty and would like to some day bring his wife and children to New York. He is very happy to finally see it. But more than the words, it's his face that reflects his satisfaction at living long enough to see this.

(Soundbite of "Buena Vista Social Club")

Mr. FERRER: (Foreign language spoken)

CONTRERAS: Ibrahim Ferrer died after returning from his latest tour of Europe, singing Cuban songs. In the eight years since his first trip out of Cuba, he released solo records, won Grammys and charmed audiences around the world with his soft supple voice that some compared to the singing of Nat "King" Cole. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to comment, give us a call at (202) 408-3330.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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