Wednesday, May 19, 2004

EXCLUSIVE: In conversation with Ibrahim Ferrer
This will be a rather long post, but well worth it I think.

Here's the unedited transcript of a couple e-mails I traded with Ibrahim Ferrer, of Buena Vista Social Club fame. He speaks little English, so these answers come through a translator.

As discussed here before, he's currently barred from entering the United States as a result of the Bush administration's crackdown on Cuba. Full story in tomorrow's Post.


1) When did you learn your Visa application for the United States had been denied? Had you ever before had any problems gaining the proper documentation to enter the United States? What reasons were you given for the denial?

A few days before the travel date. No, I have never had such kind of problems to travel to the USA. I have had the pleasure of getting together with my US many times and all of them have been unforgettable. I think my audience there really welcomes me and they have shown me their love many times. I hope I can meet it soon again. Regarding these bureaucracy matters, you know, I really don't understand these matters very well. But I can tell you we have always been treated most respectfully.

As far as I know, the reason was that our presence was supposed to be detrimental to the interest of the United States.. Well... what can I say? I am a 76 years old man, I have never done or wished anything bad to nobody...

2) There have been reports in the American media that United States government officials were concerned that any financial rewards or gains you received while in the United States might be end up in the hands of the Castro government. Do you have any response to that? Do you have any relationship with Castro? Do you contribute financially to his government (other than through taxes, of course)?

I just can say I don't understand it. We have been in the USA many times before, and always by reasons of cultural exchanges. A cultural exchange between two great cultures, so that we get to know each other’s music and culture, and get the audience to know our music and culture. This is the same thing in Cuba: many US musicians come to the Jazz Festival of La Habana, so that we can enjoy their music.

As for the Award I will just say I have a small room in my house which I call “my museum”, where I store all the Awards I keep dearly together with presents from my fans and I must say I think I have them all!

No, I have no relationship with Mr. Fidel Castro. You see, I would be surprised if, for example, you tell me you do have a relationship with the president of your country. Politicians are very busy people, and that applies to our president as well, like any other politician of any other country he doesn’t have much time left. I had the pleasure to meet him once however: I was invited to a reception together with other artists, and we shook hands. In my travels I also had the opportunity to meet the Finland president, and some others that wanted to meet me because of my work as an artist.

No I don't, and to be true I don't see how could I. I was never asked to anyway. I do pay my taxes, guess like any other citizen of any other country.

3) Do feel you've become the victim of a political campaign by the George W. Bush administration against Castro and Cuba?

No. I have felt like a victim in my life. I think music has no passport and no politics, it arrives to everyone and it always brings you something, may be love, maybe hope, strength... This is my political principles: my music and my wish is to bring music and my love message to all people and all around the world.

4) Is it frustrating that art and music can't rise above such political actions?

As I was saying, I think that all kind of art: music, painting, literature... art is above all. Art captivates and has the power to make you see life in another perspective. And I don't think this can be stopped by no means.

5) What are your feelings toward America? Its people. And its government.

I have many friends in US. Also from all over the world: Canada, Japan, Island, Spain... I love all of them and they love me and my music, as has been shown many times. All people are the same to me, no matter what country, race, religion, social class... The only important thing is hearth, all the rest we don't choose., When somebody asks me what country I like best I must say I love all countries, I don't use to distinguish.

And regarding the government, I could not say... I didn't have the chance to go to school as I started working when I was very young, so I must say, and makes me embarrassed to say it, that I don't really understand much about politics. The only thing I can say is that I think that each country's citizens are the ones in the position to express an opinion, as they are the only ones that can really do it.

6) Could you ever have imagined that a legendary 77-year-old musician would be treated like a terrorist threat?

Well, I never really felt I was treated like a terrorist, and I hope never to be treated like one.
I don't mind to be treated like an old man... but I must say that I feel more like a little boy rather than an old man. Bear in mind I was born again just seven years ago, so I am around 7-8 years old now.

7) In a way, for many Americans especially, you were something of a Cuban ambassador - do you think artists like yourself and the Buena Vista Social Club had the power to break down a lot of the stereotypes and misconceptions about life in Cuba?

That is how I feel, like a Cuban Culture ambassador, it makes me feel proud because I see that people from all over the world loves our music.

Regarding life in Cuba, I thing this is like everything, every one has a particular opinion. I can only say to any one who wants to know Cuba, and has the opportunity to travel, just come and see it with own eyes. Like you do when you go to a new country were you never went before.

8) Have you had any problems entering Canada? (On a side note, I know cities like Toronto have become almost secondary homes for a great number of young jazz musicians.)

As I told you, I never had problems to entry any country; well, except this time in the USA to pick up the Grammy award. I could tell you many anecdotes. In many countries, I would be asked for autographs as I was going through the customs, people took pictures with me and some went to see my concerts afterwards.

I always felt very welcomed in Canada, besides I have good friends there that I hope to see in my next trip to Toronto next month. I have a family of friends there and I am looking forward to see them all; this will be next June the 10th.

9) And aside from all this, let's talk about the music - does it still excite you like it always has? Maybe even more so? Do things like the above only motivate you, give you an added incentive to bring your art to the world? What are you working on currently?

Music is my passion, my life, it is what I like to do best. I feel lucky to receive this gift from life at my age... and I want to enjoy it as much as I can.

Yes, maybe even more, because I am now able to understand things better, I can provide my own ideas and this makes me feel fulfilled. You must remember I fought all my life for music, and I didn't get much. I finally gave up, I retired, and then it turns out to be that the best was still about to come into my life.

What really motivates me is do things with love, whatever it is. When you do things with love, everything turns out well.

Well, I am on tour now and this is something I really enjoy to do. Be in touch with the audience is an experience that never stops surprising me.

I do have a project in mind and I am really willing to go for it; I have talked about it with Nick Gold, the company's president, and I hope I can soon start to record, as soon as I have time. I am sorry but I cannot tell you more about it, as it is a surprise.

10) What new musicians are exciting you?

I am crazy about my dear friend’s Omara Portuondo new album. It is called "Flor de Amor" and it makes you dream... I don't know how to explain you, it has Brazilian influences, and I have always liked Brazilian music, I even dared to sing some Brazilian song when I was young.
Omara's voice really wins your hearth...

11) And have you had much time to reflect on your amazing travels and successes of the last few years?

I think life is to be lived... I prefer not to reflect, the past is the past. The important thing is to enjoy life like just as if each day was the last day of your life.

Thanks again for your time. It is very, very much appreciated. Please let me know if there's any trouble translating any of the above.

It was a pleasure to do this interview. Written interviews are easier for me , I have more time to answer all questions.

My management office sent the interview to me, I only speak Spanish and badly! I hope to see you this summer in your town. Please send many greetings to your fellow people in Canada, I will soon be there whit you!

Ibrahim Ferrer


Mr. Ferrer,

Thanks very much for your responses. Glad to hear things are well in Cuba.

1) You said, "I have felt like a victim in my life." When was that? Or did you mean you "haven't" felt like a victim?

(Translator's answer): This was a translation error, we are sorry for that! Mr. Ferrer's answer to that question was he never felt like a victim.

2) You also mentioned being born again. Did you mean that in a religious sense? Tell me about that. What inspired that change?

During all these years working as a musician I had to cross many obstacles: I was always told that my voice was no good, my name doesn't appear in many albums I have recorded. I have always loved to sing boleros, I feel boleros always brings a message, and my orchestra directors used to tell me my voice was no good to sing boleros. This brought me down and I chose retirement as I was really disappointed .

So when I was invited to record on the Buena Vista Social Club project, I was about to say no, because I was afraid to have another disillusion.

Once I arrived at the studio I saw Ry Cooder and Nick Gold, of my record company, and as I began to sing, seems that they liked my voice. This was the beginning of a new life to me. Now I feel recognition to my work, I know people like my voice and my style, and this feels like I was born again. That's why I always say I am like a seven-years old boy... I mean it in the artistic sense, of course.

3) Have you yet received your Grammy award for this past year?

Yes I did! And I am proud to say that my orchestra guitar player, great friend and great musician Manuel Galban has also received his, for his album “Mambo Sinuendo”.

4) You said about music - "I finally gave up, I retired..." When you were shining shoes, had you really given up on music and lost all hope in its powers? Is it strange to have to fight again to perform in a place like the United States?

Ok let me explain you this, I used to clean shoes, but this was not to survive. I was on pension and I had enough money to me and my family, but at that time I use to have some little bad habits, like smoking or drinking having a run with friends every now and then . So I used to clean shoes to be able to afford this bad little habits, spend some money with my friends out of the pension .... Let me tell you that now I don't smoke anymore and I am happy for this! I still drink, but very little. But I really recommend all smokers to give it up ...

I must tell you I was disappointed , but not with music or its power. I was disappointed with the world of music, because they wouldn’t 't give me no opportunity during all these years. I had got used to the idea and I had lost my hope. That's why I retired myself.

I think that life is a strange thing, full of surprises... Once I thought I couldn't expect anything from life anymore, and life was about to give me something I could never imagine even in my best dreams: people's love and recognition. My audience demonstrates it to me all the time, and this makes me fell very happy. I wouldn't say I had to fight. What I do is to give myself over; I give all I have inside my hearth, and I think this is something that all audiences in the world can understand, no matter from which country.

Of course, I always try to do my best at work.

5) And, finally, how are things in Cuba?

I don't use to get out much, I like to stay at home with my family, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren and with my friends. I love to get together with them and play domino at home. I also enjoy to spend time with my dogs, I have a soft spot for them... I have tree dogs: Principe, Rocco and Travi. I am always thinking about them when I am on tour, I cannot wait to see them again and play with them!

6) Do you perform regularly?

I always like to perform in Cuba because it's a very demanding audience who understands a lot of music. But I cannot perform there as much as I would like to, as I spend much time in my international tours. Me and my good friend Omara Portuondo did her new album’s ("Flor de Amor") presentation show at the National Theatre, which is an awesome theatre. I was invited to her new album presentation show and I enjoyed it very much.

7) Where are you currently living in Cuba exactly?

I am living in a very quiet zone with my family. I cannot tell you my address, otherwise I may be receiving many foreign visits at home within the next days...

8) And do you ever go and get your shoes shined?

I like shining shoes! I do it with much affection and, of course, I do shine my own shoes.

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