Ibrahim Ferrer: "The Older Chicken Makes a Better Soup"

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I’ve been poking around my interview archives and thought it would be nice to select a few to share again. The first one, apropos of the recent focus on Cuba, is an interview with the late Ibrahim Ferrer (1927-2005), who finally won fame late in life when he joined the all-star Buena Vista Social Club. I first heard about the now-celebrated Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) record in 1995, and I snapped up a copy of the pricey import version as soon as it became available. I couldn’t wait for the U.S. release on Nonesuch, and was eager to give the group its U.S. debut, which I did on Café L.A. Six years later in the summer of 2001, I hosted a sold-out KCRW World Festival show (18,000 concertgoers) for the Cuban group at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the fabled group’s biggest show in L.A., and I still have the billboard from that memorable evening.

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Billboard for the 2001 Buena Vista Social Club show at the Hollywood Bowl. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Inside the Buena Vista Social Club. Photo by Garry Bassin.
Interior of the former Buena Vista Social Club. Photo by Garry Bassin. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I interviewed Ibrahim Ferrer, the elegant singer at the heart of BVSC, backstage on the day of the Bowl show, July 15, 2001. He was amazed at being in Los Angeles for the first time and playing at the iconic venue. I had been instructed by his handlers not to ask him about the history of the group, where and what exactly was the BVSC, and so on. It felt like I was in Cuba or some country with a restricted press.

I did find out subsequently that there really was an actual BVSC — it was a small house in a residential neighborhood in Havana with a bar in the back and a small stage for the performers. A filmmaker friend went to Cuba recently and his taxi driver knew where the house was and took him there. The current occupants showed him around the house and he took the picture above.

Anyway, I wore my Havana Sugar Kings t-shirt to the interview that day. As soon as Ibrahim saw it, he excitedly said, “That’s my favorite baseball team! I was a fan the minute I came from Santiago de Cuba, Oriente Province [Eastern part of Cuba] to Havana.” The shirt served as a terrific ice-breaker. I later ordered two shirts for Ibrahim and his wife. It took months before the package finally arrived in Barcelona, where their management company was located.

After our time together, and in spite of all the warnings I got about proscribed topics, Ibrahim told me that it was the best interview he’d ever done. He told me about the first song he fell in love with–a tango by Carlos Gardel–and how he loved Nat Cole‘s version of “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” (Those Green Eyes), partially because of Cole’s bad Spanish accent. Ibrahim also recalled his first big gig with Orquesta Chepin in 1955; I had brought their 1960 album along and we featured a song called “El Mecanico.” As is typical of many tropical Latin songs, the lyrics are very suggestive. (Hint: It is not about an auto mechanic.)

During his early career in the 50’s, Ibrahim sang backup for Beny Moré and the first band he joined was called Los Bocucos, but he never became really famous back then. People didn’t like his voice, especially on boleros. What astounded him was that his first solo album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, had by the time of the 2001 interview sold over one million copies. Ibrahim was puzzled: Why did people not like his voice when he was young, but love it now when he was old?

Meanwhile, here I am wearing that very same Havana Sugar Kings t-shirt from so long ago.

And here is the interview from July 15, 2001, recorded backstage at the Hollywood Bowl:

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