Ry Cooder Remixes and Expands Ibrahim Ferrer’s 2003 Grammy Winning ‘Buenos Hermanos (ALBUM REVIEW)

Originally released in 2003, the late Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club, and the last of the great Cuban son vocalists, released his second solo album, Buenos Hermanos,  produced by Ry Cooder. It went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album that year and was another vital recording in the Buena Social Club series that brought greater awareness of Cuban music to the world at large. Cooder has now gone back to the original tapes to remix the entire album, adding four previously unheard tracks from the original album sessions to a brand new sequence, creating a completely reimagined Buenos Hermanos. Unlike many reissues of this type, Cooder intersperses the unheard tracks throughout the album rather than just an addendum. In the process, he reordered the original sequence as well.

“It’s better than ever, if I may say,” comments Cooder on the new mixes. “We went back into the session tapes and found songs that were overlooked for some reason, and you’re going to be as thrilled as I am. We’ve really polished it up and improved it and expanded it, it sounds almost brand new. There’s one thing for sure: we need something good, something beautiful in these days and times.”  

Buenos Hermanos followed Ferrer’s first solo album Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer and was hailed at the time as a selection of fresh takes on classic songs and thrilling examples of the romantic ballads and boleros for which Ferrer was justly famed. Having retired from nearly 40 years of performing, Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes in 1996 when he was approached by Afro-Cuban All Stars’ bandleader Juan de Marcos González to sing on the sessions that would become the original Buena Vista Social Club album. The record was released to phenomenal reception the following year, going on to sell over eight million copies and catapulting Ferrer and his fellow musicians to international fame.

The never-before-heard track “Ven Conmigo Guajira,” a lively interpretation of a classic Cuban country song in the romantic dance hall style has already premiered.  The song was originally penned by the renowned composer and bandleader Francisco “Machito” Grillo (who died while performing at Ronnie Scott’s in 1984). “We must have been crazy to leave that out,” says Ry of the track, “That’s the best version of that song I’ve ever heard.” 

Here is some background on the other previously unissued tracks. “Mujer” is an emotional performance from Ibrahim of this famous bolero, written by the legendary Mexican musician and songwriter Agustín Lara. “Ojos Malvados” (“Evil Eyes”), composed by Cristina Saladrigas (one of the few women in the early days of traditional Cuban “trova”), is another elegant bolero that has become part of the repertoire of some of the greatest Cuban musicians, from son and bolero giants Trio Matamoros to Barbarito Díez. The fourth track to be added to the original album, “Me Voy Pa’ Sibanicú,” is a “guaracha,” a style connected to the Cuban son that reflects the tremendous street humor of cities like Ibrahim’s hometown of Santiago de Cuba, and which is usually spiced with double meanings and satire.  The rhythms in this piece especially percolate. Fortunately, like the original, the lyrics are in both Spanish and English. This version contains a new foreword from Cooder.

Those familiar with the original album will recall its classy beauty and adventurous musicality. There’s the free-flowing improvisation “La Música Cubana,” composed spontaneously in the studio by Ferrer and Chucho Valdés; the explosive rhythms of “Hay Que Entrarle a Palos a Ése” with Galbán’s time-warp organ solo; and the gritty guitars of Cooder and Galbán on “No Tiene Telaraña.” The two guitarists are juxtaposed to strikingly different effect against Demetrio Muñiz’s orchestral arrangement on “Mil Congojas,” while there’s the playfulness that Flaco Jimenez’s accordion brings to “Naufragio,” the charming cha cha cha “Como El Arrullo de Palma,” and the pop sensibility of the lovely “Boliviana,” which Valdés originally wrote for Irakere in the 1970s

The handpicked core band is an unusual ensemble that combining Cubans and Americans. They are Orlando “Cachaíto” López (bass) and Manuel Galbán (electric guitar, piano and organ), Ry Cooder (guitars), Jim Keltner(drums), Joachim Cooder (percussion), the esteemed Chucho Valdés (piano) and Miguel ‘Angá’ Díaz (congas). Various members of the Afro-Cuban All Stars participate as well as accordionist Flaco Jimenez, the Blind Boys of Alabama on “Perfume de Gardinias,” also adorned with a great tenor sax solo; and trumpeter Jon Hassell, who especially shines on “Boliviana.”

Ferrer brings to these songs not only his vocal mastery, but a confidence and self-assurance that, according to Cooder, puts him up there alongside such all-time giants of Cuban music as Ferrer’s own personal hero, Beny Moré. “These are songs that make me feel younger,” said Ferrer (76 at the time, and passing two years later).“I have put my deepest feelings into them and it’s my way of giving something back to my listeners and thanking them for their support. I enjoy feeling there is something inside what I am singing.” If you missed it the first time, here it is again – bigger, better, and even brighter than the original.

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