It sounds remarkable, but in the mid-1990s there was a very real danger that the flair and romance of Cuba’s traditional music was to be lost to the history books forever. The country’s distinctly Afro-infused Latin rhythms were under threat from modern Western sounds, Havana’s youth tired of their elders’ dancehall boleros, guajiras and rumbas.
Now, of course, the jubilant music of Cuba is everywhere, thanks in large part to the efforts of musicologist Juan de Marcos González, who trawled his country to assemble a line-up of aging elder statesmen for a last-minute recording session alongside American guitarist Ry Cooder. The result was 1997’s Buena Vista Social Club and the rest, as they say, is history. With the help of Wim Wenders’ 1999 Oscar-winning film of the same name, the aging, often poverty-stricken players became celebrities – and Cuba’s distinctive Latino rhythms exploded worldwide, the fire and joy invading nightclubs, music festivals and front rooms across the globe.
Now however, the music faces a fresh threat, as the Buena Vista’s most recognisable late-blooming stars – trova guitarist Compay Segundo, pianist Rubén González, and singer Ibrahim Ferrer – have all passed on, at aged 95, 84 and 78 respectfully. The responsibility has now fallen at the feet of the latter’s son, Ibrahim Ferrer Jr, a self-championed ‘true inheritor’ of Buena Vista who is fighting to keep his father’s work alive.
‘In the ’50s and ’60s modernity was threatening the romance of the fields, the African and Spanish role in music,’ says Ferrer ardently. ‘If it weren’t for a few “wise men”, separated and in separate parts of the country... then the tradition of Cuban song would have been lost. It’s [the music] been transmitted to my generation, this statement to preserve and transmit to the masses that feeling.’
Ferrer is speaking to me in the lush surroundings of Dubai’s new Latin-themed nightspot Izel, where he performed two nights for the venue’s opening party, and pledges to return to Dubai soon. ‘I feel honoured and privileged to bring Cuban music to this city and country,’ he says, his passion clear and unassuming despite communicating through a translator. ‘This is furthest you can ever go from Cuba, and I’m like a grain of sand – the first grain of sand – and I hope there will be a beach.’
He wasn’t always such an ambassador. Despite growing up around music his whole life, Ferrer didn’t begin performing professionally until after his 40th birthday, warned off the musician’s nomadic lifestyle by his famous father. It was his mother, however, who ensured that the lust for music was born deep in the younger Ferrer’s soul, loading him with precious fuel which would be ignited much later in life.
‘I was listening to music in my mother’s belly,’ laughs Ferrer, now 56. ‘My father was a known singer but it was my mother who encouraged my music. For my father music and singing was a job, he did that out of the house, so when he came home he chose not to sing.
‘All he knew how to do was sing, he started singing when he was 12, and he went through tough times. So he didn’t want his sons to go intro music. He said “have a proper career, and maybe later do music as a hobby”. The desire to play music was always there for me, I wanted to learn to play every instrument, but I never took it seriously.’
Ferrer dutifully obeyed his father, working for 25 years traversing the world’s oceans as a naval engineer. He was however lucky enough to be in Havana for the Buena Vista sessions in February 1996, where he worked as a ‘help-boy’ at 38 years old. An experience he seems to recall like it was yesterday, Ferrer was tasked with rousing each of the 20 participating ‘old men’ and ensuring they were present for the three weeks of recording which would produce not only Buena Vista Social Club, but also Introducing... Rubén González, the first in a string of solo albums from members of the ensemble (Ferrer’s father was the only member to release three such albums).
Despite his experience with the album, duty came knocking and Ferrer set off that summer aboard the Blue West, embarking on a journey which would take him via North America to the Middle East. It would be more than a year before Ferrer returned; a political dispute daw the vessel held for 12 months in Iran. The experience taught him the value of his time, and when the singer finally made it back home in September 1997 he knew it was time to follow in his father’s footsteps. Since then Ferrer has released two albums, with a third on the way next year.
Ferrer’s decision to turn to music only became more poignant following his father’s passing in 2005: The pair had shared a stage for the first time just four years earlier, performing in front of a live crowd of 9,000 for Argentinean TV, where Ferrer now lives. His father made a surprise appearance to introduce his son, and Ferrer today interprets his father’s words as a formal blessing of his career change.
‘I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but I feel it is,’ says Ferrer, when asked about his father’s legacy. ‘I feel the urge and the need to transmit the traditional sound to the new generation coming out of Cuba, I feel the need to transmit everything that has come. There are very few bands in Cuba that try to preserve the real traditional Cuban sounds, from my generation there are very few left. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.’
Find out more about Ibrahim Ferrer Jr here www.facebook.com/ibrahim.ferrer.jr
Izel is open Tuesday-Saturday 6.30pm-3am. Conrad Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road, izel.com (04 444 7111).