A Taste of Old Cuba; since First Finding Fame at the Age 70 with the Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban Singer Ibrahim Ferrer Has Gone on to Become a Grammy-Winning International Superstar. but, He Tells Stephen Burgen, It's Never Too Late for Success

Article excerpt

Byline: STEPHEN BURGEN

Ibrahim Ferrer sits in the bar of the Frankfurt Hilton, dressed in one of his trademark Kangol caps and a loud shirt. A gold watch and a gold bangle are the only marks of ostentation. He eyes the tumbler of cognac and then dips the first finger of his right hand in the glass and rubs a drop on his right hip and then repeats the process with his left. Another drop goes on the head of his mother's walking stick which has accompanied him everywhere since she died 64 years ago. Finally he tips the glass on its side and lets one small drop fall to the floor. These are offerings to the saints.

Ferrer is an adherent of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban take on Christianity, and he says it is faith and the bolero that has got him - finally - where he is today.

It is now six years since Ry Cooder, the American guitarist and composer for films such as Paris, Texas, under the umbrella of the Buena Vista Social Club, introduced us to the forgotten music of Cuba. Many of the musicians were elderly, but men whose vitality made old age look more like a welcome prospect than something grimly inevitable. Among them was Ferrer, then only 70 and reluctant to revive a singing career that had brought him little joy, even though at the time he was having to eke out his retirement shining shoes. Although he was born during a dance, his is not an upbeat tale. His father died when he was eight and by the age of 12 he was an orphan, forced to begin singing to survive. A modest man, he says he cannot call himself a musician because he never had any training. Despite his talent and fine, true voice - perfect for ballads - he felt undervalued throughout his career.

'They always said my voice wasn't good enough, that I could only sing in the chorus, or on dance numbers,' he says. 'And I never got a single credit on any recording.' In the days before the revolution, he says, the most common venue was the beach, although they also played hotels and casinos. 'Life changed completely after the revolution,' he says. Thereafter musicians were paid a salary by the union.

Now he has a Grammy and a new album, Buenos Hermanos, that he is taking on a sell-out European tour. He makes people happy and sends them home with smiles on their faces, but they also weep openly at his concerts. There is a Japanese woman who follows him round the world. She says he has saved her life. In Chicago young women jumped on stage and tried to tear his clothes off. Later they staked out his hotel room, groupie style. Not that they would have had any luck - Ferrer's one condition when he tours is that his wife, Cachin, goes with him.

Ferrer is not some barely rekindled star trailing his old hits round the Vegas circuit. His style is of another age - a soft precursor of relentlessly brassy salsa - but his music is immediate, fresh and hot. …