IBRAHIM FERRER at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (February 21). $65-$135. 416-870-8000.
In just six years, Ibrahim Ferrer has gone from shining shoes to selling out auditoriums.After decades of obscurity and being told by Cuban state officials that his elegant boleros represented the island's decadent, capitalist past, the mild-mannered crooning star of the Buena Vista Social Club has become an instant member of Cuba's elite. He's moved into a luxury home, can come and go from the island as he pleases and was hand-picked to sing at Fidel Castro's birthday party.
But rather than coasting on his hero status with another collection of easygoing boleros, the singer has reunited with Buena Vista boss Ry Cooder for his best and most ambitious record yet.
Buenos Hermanos is in many ways the second part of Cooder's own new release, Mambo Sinuendo. Recorded simultaneously, both discs show the same willingness to experiment with the Cuban music form. Buenos Hermanos has stirring boleros but also features Ferrer jamming with unlikely suspects like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tex-Mex Conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez. It's an unusual direction the singer himself takes some credit for.
"In the first recording I had very little input," Ferrer explains from Chicago through a translator. "Ry Cooder and (World Circuit producer) Nick Gold arranged that whole project, and I just sang. On this one I was much more involved.
"Chucho Valdés and Manuel Galbán came by the studio and we just started working through songs. On one day we went through 50 different songs and tried to come up with something that was interesting and different."
"We wanted to shrink things down a lot and stop relying on massive string sections," Ry Cooder adds. "I thought changing the textures and working with some people would pump some juice into the project. I love that first record, but what this one is about is energy. It's a bit more propulsive. Chucho Valdés kicks it pretty good, Galbán is all over the piano and you've got Flaco and the Blind Boys.
"These are beautiful songs, but the arrangements aren't typically Cuban. It's not the nightclub thing. This is just a way of pushing the envelope a bit. It's not careless or simple skin grafting. Havana has a very flexible scene, and you've got talent to burn, so why not?"
Despite the all-star lineup, Cooder is most effusive about Ferrer himself. At 76, the singer's voice sounds stronger than ever, and the shy performer who seemed almost embarrassed to be performing on massive stages is long gone.
"Ibrahim has come further than anyone in confidence," Cooder agrees. "All this stage work has turned him into a real star."
Any hope that Ferrer's late success has led to a new crop of Cuban bolero stars is soon dashed, though. Tourists might be flocking to old Havana to hear Dos Gardenias, but it's Gin & Juice that Cuban kids are grooving to now.
"Rap has taken over music in Cuba," Ferrer sighs. "It's everywhere now, and that's what the young people are most interested in. Thanks in part to the success of Buena Vista, though, there is a resurgence of interest in the old music. There aren't a lot of new bolero singers, but the curiosity about the music is there, and that can only be a good thing."firstname.lastname@example.org