One of the first things that spring to mind when I think of the Buena Vista Social Club is the melody of ‘Chan Chan’ co-sung by Ibrahim Ferrer, who died last week. My liking for the slow but intense rhythm and the simple words of the love song is hard to articulate, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it never fails to inspire images of the Cuba that I do not yet known but am eager to experience.
I am one of the many people whose ears have been opened to the sound of the Buena Vista Social Club only recently, and so it came as a great disappointment to learn of the sudden death of Ferrer, one if the group’s most recognisable figures. However, I was pleased to see that even here in the UK - where the music market persistently seems so impervious to so-called ‘World Music’ and its virtual non-existence in the charts reflects such hostility - there were several obituaries to one of the main figures of Latin American, and specifically, Cuban music. As a Hispanicist, I can remember when ‘Latin Culture’ exploded onto the scene in the late 90s, with Bacardi Breezer even using the line, ‘There’s Latin spirit in everyone’ to capture the imagination of a the masses and thereby introduce them to a Spanish-speaking world that extended beyond Ibiza and Benidorm.
That is one of the great things about Ferrer and his fellow singers in Buena Vista – he loved the sound of the Cuban Son and was undisputedly one of the sound’s greatest pioneers. Starting out in the 50s, he promoted a rhythm through which Cuba’s black population could give expression to their joys, sorrows and life experiences. Indeed, Ferrer began singing at a time when many Cubans, such as the poet Nicolas Guillen, were beginning to showcase their skills to an ever-increasing home and international audience.
Although I will never get the chance to hear Ferrer sing 'Chan Chan' live, a search for his work throws up numerous results and his discography, which is as varied as it is extensive, is ultimately the most glowing testimony to his talent.
Cuba has lost one its greatest stars, however his influence will live on.