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The 72-year-old Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, in town to promote Wim Wenders's documentary on his group, the Buena Vista Social Club, was trying to remember when he nailed his first chance at success: "I won a contest in Santiago where you had to learn the number quickly in those days I could do it in a day," said Ferrer. "I learned 'Charlemos,' a song by the Argentine singer Alberto Gomez. I won a pullover and a ticket to the theater to see a movie. It was a western, Tom Mix, I think. I was about 12 years old."
You could say that Ferrer, who has been called the Nat King Cole of Cuban music, was born to sing his mother gave birth to him in the middle of a social club dance. He went on to have an impressive career, singing with Santiago's finest orchestra, Chepín-Chovén; Los Bucocos, a Havana band that toured internationally; and Benny Moré, perhaps Cuba's most celebrated voice. But until Ry Cooder recruited him for Buena Vista, he was largely unknown even within his own country.
"I was never famous," smiled Ferrer, clasping his leathery hands. "If I was, this is the first I know about it." But Ferrer is all over Wenders's movie, inviting the director up to his worn apartment in the Los Sitios district of Havana, adding to the film's dreamlike quality with his devotion to Saint Lazarus, a coded Santería deity. "I don't understand anything about Santería," said Ferrer, who carries around a carved ebony staff in memory of Lazarus, left to him by his mother. "But I keep the staff as if it were her. I don't travel without it. If it doesn't appear in the movie, I don't appear." When he mentions his mother, who died 62 years ago, his eyes soften with tears, the way they did in the film when he sings a climactic duet with Omara Portuondo.
While Cooder, who pitched the film to Wenders while working on the soundtrack to The End of Violence, believes Buena Vista's old-time sonmusic was considered "socially irrelevant" by Castro's regime, Ferrer insists he knows nothing of politics. He blames the rise of salsa music on a tyrannical force known as "El Teen Cuba." "For them, if you're 50, you're old, you have to go out to pasture. You don't have the right to continue," he said.
But now Ferrer has the last laugh. "When we arrived at London, I saw my photo big as life, and I said, 'Damn, is that me or what?' marvels Ferrer. "And now I can finally say I've seen New York. I love Chinatown, especially at night, but I couldn't live here. It's too much."
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