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It was a hot day in Havana when I walked into my bank in Chinatown and found a very small, old, black man wearing a Bolsheviki cap and an Afro-Cuban All Stars shirt. It was 1998, the Buena Vista Social Club had just hit paydirt in the States, and offshoots from
Ibrahim Ferrer
the group had completed another, arguably more authentic, recording project under the auspices of the All Stars.

I asked the old man where he got the shirt.

"Es mi trabajo," he answered with a wry sideways smile.

It was Ibrahim Ferrer, whose plaintive voice now fills the homes of millions across the Florida Straits. He had just returned from the Grammys, where his band, Buena Vista Social Club, with Ry Cooder, had won for Best Tropical Latin Performance. Now he was standing in a bank line in Central Havana, waiting to deposit his latest paycheck. Part of it, at least: The rest of his money was probably under his mattress at home, or stored in a high-yield fund back in the States under the care of the Time Warner Record Company. Cubans never let the state know how much money they had - there was a fear, probably not unfounded, that the socialists might take it all away.

Ferrer's fame had not gone to his head, despite his newfound success. He was a dapper little man, humbly wearing a mischievous grin that told the world that after four decades of poverty as a down-and-out shoeshine, he had finally put one over on the gringos and made a fortune from it.

It's not to say that Ferrer's voice is not a Cuban national treasure: It is. And as for the rest of Buena Vista - Ruben González, Compay Segundo, Barbarito Torres - they are virtuosos in their own right. But their talents quench a thirst within many Americans for an outlandishly romantic ideal of life (and love) on the island, and fill a nostalgic niche for Cuban Americans who long for the world to be as it was before the revolution and Castro. Buena Vista Social Club, however successful it might be, is not contemporary Cuba. Most of its members are septuagenarians

Saturday, April 12
224-9600 or
Municipal Auditorium
100 Auditorium Circle
or older (Compay Segundo is 96!), with two or three generations of talented musicians waiting for a chance to shine. It was therefore an immense stroke of irony when, two years after our meeting, Ferrer won a Latin Grammy in the category of "Best New Artist."

Neither Buena Vista Social Club nor the Afro-Cuban All Stars exist as musical acts on the island. They are a figment of guitarist and producer Ry Cooder's and talent wrangler Juan De Marcos González' ambitions - a musical by-product of the Cuban 20th century, dredged up and filtered for a non-Latino audience. It said a lot when Cooder tore the heart out of the music, substituting the musical pulse of a Cuban percussion section with his son beating a djembe. Talk about outrageous solipsism. It probably helped that the songs were good.

On their own, the Social Club members provide a glimpse of Cuba as it once was, and a small musical portrait of the talent that exists on the island today. Ferrer is surely an act worth fighting to see - if not for the fact that Cuban performers are finding it increasingly hard to get permission to play in the States (thanks to the Office of Homeland Security), then for the bleak reality that he might not be around in 10 years' time. When a man his age sings a bolero, it means something. Go find out what. •

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