Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club died Saturday in Havana, Cuba, after a week-long bout with emphysema. The Afro-Cuban vocalist was seventy-eight years old.
Ferrer was one of the founding members of the Cuban collective that rose to international acclaim in the mid-Nineties playing Cuba's traditional polyrhythmic music known as son. The band -- which also featured guitarists/singers Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa, and pianist Ruben Gonzalez -- was organized by American producer/guitarist Ry Cooder, the sessions for which were captured for the popular Wim Wenders-directed film by the same name. After years of playing music in their homeland, the combined talents of Segundo, Gonzalez and Ferrer made them an overnight sensation in the States and Europe. (Gonzalez and Segundo both died in 2003.)
"An angel came and picked me up and said, 'Chico, come and do this record,'" Ferrer said in 1998 of being approached by Cooder years after his retirement from singing in 1991. "I didn't want to do it, because I had given up on music."
An orphan at the age of twelve, Ferrer joined his first singing group, Los Jovenes del Son, the following year, and later went on to sing vocals with the Beny More orchestra. His breakthrough song on the Buena Vista album was "Dos Gardenias," the Cuban classic which he had originally learned with More.
The Club won a Grammy in 1999 for their 1997 self-titled debut, with Ferrer contributing vocals that same year to the Afro-Cuban All-Stars' A Toda Cuba Le Gusta. Ferrer's first solo record, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, recorded in 1999 at the age of seventy, went on to win him a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2000. His most recent release, 2003's Cooder-produced Buenos Hermanos, was awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin album.
Ferrer is survived by his wife, Caridad Diaz, six children, fourteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.