Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, one of the stars of the 1990s Buena Vista Social Club CD series, died Saturday (Aug. 6) in Havana at the age of 78.
The artist had returned three days earlier from a one-month tour of Europe, and a week before dying he appeared in pain singing at a festival in Barcelona. He was hospitalized on Aug. 3 with gastroenteritis and “his condition worsened and he died of multiple organ failure,” said his manager, Daniel Florestan.
Like many fellow artists featured on the 1997 Grammy-winning album “Buena Vista Social Club,” which sold 7 million units worldwide, Ferrer enjoyed an artistic rediscovery decades after initial successes were dimmed following Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover of Cuba.
His birth in 1927 in Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of son and traditional Cuban music forms, could not have been more prophetic, as his mother gave birth in the middle of a social club dancefloor. But he was orphaned at age 12, and like many musicians of his generation, life was tough. He sold candy and popcorn before joining a dance band at the age of 14.
He moved to Havana in 1957, and though he played with the great Beny More, he did not receive the pre-revolutionary acclaim of BVSC colleagues such as guitarist/singer Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez (who both died in the past two years), guitarist/singer Eliades Ochoa or singer Omara Portuondo.
But all that changed when American guitarist Ry Cooder went to Havana in 1997 and recorded “Buena Vista Social Club,” which proved a godsend to a generation of poor Cuban musicians in their 70s and 80s.
After the album, Cooder produced a Ferrer solo set, “Buena Vista Social Club presents… Ibrahim Ferrer,” which sold 1.5 million units. In 2004, Ferrer won a Grammy for “Buenos Hermanos,” but U.S. anti-Cuban restrictions meant he could not travel to receive the award. Next month will see the release of his last studio album, the bolero-leaning “Mi Sueno: A Bolero Songbook.”