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Ibrahim Ferrer, my life for a bolero

Rummaging through his files, Betto Arcos —Mexican music journalist based in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to media such as NPR and BBC, where he tells stories about Latin music and from around the world — he found the only interview he did with Ibrahim Ferrer, on April 1, 2003 at the Hyatt Hotel. Betto, who had been the faithful interpreter of the Cuban during his last tours of the United States, talked with him about his childhood, his arrival in Havana, his friendship and work with Benny Moré, the years with Los Bocucos, his disappointment with the music, the consequent retirement at the age of 70 and his subsequent return, thanks to Juan de Marcos González. The result is this delicious narration that flows in the voice of Ibrahim himself and where anecdotes, boleros and Cuban sonorities jump out at times, and that Betto has generously given to our magazine, coinciding with the recent reissue by the World Circuit label of the album Good brothers, in an extended format, remastered and on vinyl.

 

I was born in a dance. In the Los Hoyos neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba, in Martí and Moncada, where the French-African society El Cucuyé is located. That's where I grew up until I was old enough, that Mom and Dad died. From that moment on I had to leave my studies and find a life for myself, because I didn't have someone who could tell me: continue your studies; life was very different from life now.

I always liked singing. Since I was little I sang, and my mother and aunt sang to me to make me fall asleep. That was my life, although I had to do many types of jobs: selling newspapers, getting into boxing, playing ball ―I have always been very athletic―, always singing and behaving very well, because my mother told me that she did not want to suffer before to die, and I did not want to give my mother suffering. I always kept that in mind.

My dad was a carpenter, a cabinetmaker. My mother was with my father for revenge with my great-grandmother, because my father was black and my mother was lighter than you, and she was not interested in color, but in the man she liked. My dad played the guitar, he was bohemian. They say my dad sang beautifully, I never heard him, I didn't have time to do it because I didn't grow up with him and I rarely visited him.

I carry my mother's last name, and not my father's. It is ugly to say, but I am proud to carry my mother's last name. Her name was Aurelia Ferrer Plana and my name is Ibrahim Ferrer Plana.

***

When my mother passed away I started working with my stepfather who was the one I knew as a father. He was a bricklayer. Mateo, a friend of my stepfather, was the first teacher I had as a bricklayer, and so I did odd jobs. I remember that I earned 50 cents, despite the fact that the payroll said it was three pesos a day, just like the other apprentices, who were paid. It means that I was exploited. The day I found out I had to put that down. I started at 12, picking at 13. So I quit and went with a man who was a painter, I didn't even like painting. Then my aunt wanted to become a carpenter, and I didn't like carpentry either. In other words, I went from one job to another, and they didn't pay me.

I was always singing, until I went with a sister of my mother and her husband to a place in El Caney; a place called Rajayoba, I never forget. I went with him to sow, to fell mangoes, and to chop coal. When my aunt's husband left for Santiago I would start singing, very loudly. I really liked tango. In the mornings, I would throw a machete blow and a song. One of them was in a kiss life, played by Ernesto Gómez, who said: "Kissing my mouth you told me / only death can keep us away / and the kiss you gave me was so deep / that now my life abandoned it".

In Santiago there was an influence of tango and Mexican numbers, the huapangos. From Mexico, one of the songs I liked was Divine Woman, by Agustin Lara. That number is old, I can say that it is older than me. Also Maria Elena, by Lorenzo Barcelona. "I want to sing to you woman / my most beautiful song / because you are my love". I want to record that number, what do you think? “Maria Elena, flower of fire”. I sang those numbers a lot, I watched many films by Jorge Negrete, by Pedro Infante, Pedro Vargas, also Toña la Negra, I liked all those people a lot.

It turns out that one day ―almost the end of the year 1941―, Pineo Kiko, a relative of mine, told me: “Ibrahim, I'm going to make you a singer now, I'm going to make a little group to play on the 31st”. So we formed a little group, there were three of us, guitar, bass, bongo drums, maracas, clave, guiro and trumpet.

I think I was one of the first in Santiago de Cuba who sang tangos, boleros type. I introduced tango in boleros and, you know, moved antics and stuff. I was 13 years old, looking for 14. I stayed in Santiago until '57, and that year I came to Havana. I came here to find my life.

The first orchestra that I performed with is today called La Ritmo Oriental, Elio Revé's orchestra. But I did not last long, because Revé, how can I tell you… it was very difficult. I didn't like it because of its shape. So I sang with an orchestra far inferior to his, which was Lázaro y su Microfono. But I was a man who was never afraid to work, my life was spent doing hard work. I'm a little chubby now, but I never weighed more than 120 pounds; I was always skinny, but I had legs that were very strong, very nervous, and 325-pound sacks passed through this little shoulder. I was working and singing at the same time.

I worked with Benny Moré in the late 1950s. It was a very good experience, the orchestra in which I was the best. Doing the chorus I felt like I was a lead singer. Because of the treatment of Benny, who was a great person. Wow, I don't know, I can't explain what he was like. Magnificent in every way. He was interested in you, he looked at your work, he didn't exploit you, especially. He said, no, no, no, no, give me 700 pesos, but give my musicians a thousand something. And then you would tell him: "Benny, I need 20 pesos," and he wouldn't charge you. He was very sorry that I was leaving. In itself that was not my position, I went with Benny almost on loan.

My place was with Pacho Alonso. I enter his orchestra on the condition that he sing the boleros and I sing the moved numbers. But when Benny emerges, things changed. He began to sing moving songs too, and I had to do chorus, chorus and chorus. Sometimes I would sing a number when we opened and when we closed, but it was no longer Ibrahim singing with him. I was from '52, until '65 that we separated, as a choir.

I always had an interest in singing boleros. So he [Pacho Alonso] was the first to say that my voice was not for boleros. In 1962 we traveled to Paris, to the Humanité Fair, and we stayed 21 days, then we went to the Brno Fair in Slovakia, and then the Soviet Union hired us and, instead of returning to Cuba, we we went there. In the Plaza Pigalle, in the Cabaret Samba, Carlos Querol and I sang the number of Saint Cecilia, and the applause was so so so loud that they asked us to repeat it, which we did. We returned in ʼ63 to Cuba, because the October Crisis in the Soviet Union caught up with us. Carlos Querol was also a bolero player from mother. There is a number called an immense force, which is the only bolero that I sing after we parted ways with Pacho. That was twenty-odd years ago, the only one that let me sing with Los Bocucos.

I am the founder of Los Bocucos. The oldest in Los Bocucos, after Pacho, was me. I retired in ʼ91, I said that I did not want to continue anymore because at the age of 70 I am going to be fighting to sing a bolero, if they are telling me that my voice is not good for that. I was very vexed, so vexed. However, I was there struggling because I said to myself: this group was made by me, like that one, who arrived 12 years later, is saying that he is bored with me, if I am the one who has to be bored with him, because I am the most old man, and I'm not saying it because he's the director. So I endured until I finally decided to retire, and I said I don't want to know anything about music anymore. I dedicated myself to living off my pension and what I did: I cleaned a little shoes because I didn't want to sing with anyone. Many looked for me at my house - there you can ask my wife - from the Manguaré group, for example, they went to see me and I said no. I was really very disappointed, boy. I didn't want to know about music.

Well, I was at my house one day, cleaning a pair of white shoes because I had finished greasing the water motor. When I feel that they whistle at me and Juan de Marcos appears. I didn't know who he was, then I found out that he was the director of the Sierra Maestra group. Then we started talking and he told me: “hey puro, I came to see you because I want you to do a job for me”. I thought he wanted me to clean a pair of shoes or dye him, because I dyed shoes too - I dyed them white, that's difficult, from black to white, from red to white and it wouldn't let go, what do you think?

But he told me: “I want you to record a number for me”; I answer him: “oh compay, I'm not recording anymore, I don't like it, I'm no longer fit to sing, I don't want to sing anymore”. "Damn, pure, right?". “No, I don't want to record anymore, compadre”. But hey, he gave me so much, and I am a man who has never liked to give myself to beg, so the moment came when I told him: “well, what do you want”, and in that he replied: “you are going to win a little money, you will win 50 fulas”. "Cone! 50 fulas? Well, we're already recording." Back then, 50 bucks was the shit up. I asked: “when is tomorrow?”. "Not right now". “Like right now boy; well, wait, let me wash my face”. "No, no, don't wash." "Let me wash, compadre, because look how I'm painted." The point is that I washed my face and still left me painted. When we arrived at the studio, there was Eliades Ochoa, Rubén González, Barbarito Torres – who told Juan de Marcos to look for me – and Compay Segundo, whom I met there. I knew Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, because he lived around the corner from my house, but not him. When I arrived, Eliades took the three, and began so much, so much, so much so, to put on the little number that I sang, Candle. Well, you know, there it was already in guaracha. I began to sing and sing. When I finished, Juan de Marcos told me: “come here, pure”, and introduced me to Ry Cooder. He asked me if I wanted to record, I said yes. I was already gaining confidence. We took a time, and Rubén González, who is a restless man who immediately starts directing when he sees a piano, and when I see a piano I like to follow it and unload it; so I told him: “Rubén, take it there in the same tone”, and I began: “Two gardenias for you / with them I want to say / I love you”. And Ry Cooder liked that number and he recorded it without me knowing he had done it. That's where it starts, then, to come out. then i sang On the way to the sidewalk -a number of mine-, and later Murmur, by Chepín, who had never been able to sing it. I'm telling you, I only sang moving songs, they wouldn't let me sing boleros. I downloaded some bolero when I played the danzón, in the parts of the piano download, with Luis Cartel, my compadre. He played an arpeggio and I sang a bolero, that's where I stood out singing and they never, never told me: “hey, why don't you record a bolero”, because they told me that my voice wasn't good for bolero.

I was not going to participate in that group, I went to record a mozambique, Mary Snails, for Juan de Marcos's Afro Cuban All Stars album, which had nothing to do with Buena Vista; however, I record that number and when I come to see, I am put in Buena Vista, I have become the owner of Buena Vista. Why? Because while one recorded a song, the other recorded half of another, I recorded four numbers alone, I participated in the Chan Chan, The Cartwright, Tula's room, crazy youth love and The Bayamesa. I just sing in all those numbers. And when I arrived all those people were there, the last to enter was me.

***

My first album is this one here, Buena Vista Social Club presents Ibrahim Ferrer. But look, look at this album, and look at the other one.[1] In this one there are different themes to those of that one and, if you start to analyze, different rhythm and unpublished numbers, of Cuban music.

Ry, Chucho Valdés, Demetrio Muñiz, Manuel Galbán and myself were at the meeting to talk about the album. Ry was sitting in the booth, I had a cold, please, and he asked me if I had some of my numbers, but since other people had told me before that my numbers were useless, so I refrained. I am not like certain owners of groups, that if they are singers, all the numbers are theirs. I would always like to sing a number of my own, but I am not in that candy of "my thing", because I also have friends, and others who are not friends who have good numbers that they have given me. In the end, Ry told me to put in my numbers, but I put in just two, so we did Cuban music.

I remember that Chucho got tata so you you so; and I'm like, "Fuck, it's still there, boy..." Then I call Demetrio: “damn, compay, that was so sticky. And it quickly comes to mind, because I had conceived the lyrics for a long time, but I was looking for the center, the prayer. So I tell Chucho: "don't forget the melody, but now we're going to make 'music, my Cuban music' - we already had the chorus - and then Demetrio comes out and says: "Many greats have sung", and it's Who put that part? Everything else is mine, that's where it was born. Right there we said: “we are going to record it”, cloth, and we recorded it.

***

I have traveled the world, I have two albums, and Ibrahim is still Ibrahim. Husband of Caridad Díaz. Grandfather, father, friend. This lady who is here will not let me lie, I like to help, even those who did not help me a while ago. It's the way I've done things, not as revenge, but amicably. That's me. And here I am, singing boleros.

[1] It refers to the album Good brothers, released on March 3, 2003, a month before this interview was conducted.
Betto Arcos Originally from Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico and based in Los Angeles, California, Betto is a cultural journalist, critic and speaker whose work is focused on music. Since 2009, he has been a contributor to NPR, the US public radio network, the BBC in London and KPCC in Los Angeles. For 10 years he collaborated as a reporter and music critic on the national program The World, co-produced by the BBC and Public Radio International. From 2002-2007, he was the co-manager of singer Lila Downs. He was a translator for the Cuban musicians Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and Manuel Galbán. More posts

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  1. nan2 says:

    Excelent singer. Excellent article too. By the way, Omara Portuondo nominated again for the Latin Grammys

  2. Pete Whalen says:

    What a man is Ibrahim! So smart and kind in every way
    Your music, as if personalized is so beautiful
    Thanks for this wonderful article.

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