My Pop Life #88 : Silencio – Ibrahim Ferrer

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Silencio   –   Ibrahim Ferrer with Omara Portuondo

…Duermen en mi jardin
Las blancas azucenas, los nardos y las rosas,
Mi alma muy triste y pesarosa
A las flores quiere ocultar su amargo dolor…

Jenny and I went to see the film Buena Vista Social Club in 1999 upon its release.  Directed by Wim Wenders, it charts the rehearsals of a group of Cuban musicians, some in their 90s as they play some of the old Cuban boleros and ballades and sones from the heyday of the pre-Castro era in 1940s & 1950s  Havana.  Featured imageThe accompanying LP had been released two years earlier in 1997 with Ry Cooder producing and his son Joaquim on drums and percussion.  It was an instant classic, most particularly the opening track “Chan Chan” which became ubiquitous in coffee-shops around Brighton and parts of London (and indeed the entire world).   The aging stars all became actual stars, and one of the more moving scenes in the film is the musicians arriving in Manhattan and marvelling at the architecture, presumably never dreaming they’d visit New York City.   Compay Segundo played tres and sang, Ruben Gonzalez piano, Cachito Lopez was on double bass, Eliades Ochoa was on guitar and vocals, Ry Cooder played slide mainly and Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo sang.

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One of the highlights of the film was the Rafael Hernandez song “Silencio“, performed by Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo both in rehearsal and onstage in Amsterdam.    For some reason the song wasn’t on the Buena Vista Social Club LP, but instead turned up on Ibrahim Ferrer’s first solo LP “Buena Vista Social Club introduces Ibrahim Ferrer“, also produced by Cooder in 1999.   His incredible vocal style, reminiscent of Nat King Cole in it’s delicacy, melts me every time I hear it, and this in combination with the lyrics has confirmed this piece as one of Jenny and I’s all-time special songs.  We bought it on CD, and it came with a very thorough little colourful booklet which had the Spanish lyrics to every song, and the English translation on the opposite page.  We actually decided to use the CD as a language tool and tried to learn Spanish in time for our winter visit to Cuba 1999/2000.  The first verse sets the scene :

…Duermen en mi jardin 

Sleeping in my garden

Las blancas azucenas, los nardos y las rosas,    

the white lilies, the agave and the roses

Mi alma muy triste y pesarosa  

my soul so very sad and regretful, 

A las flores quiere ocultar su amargo dolor…      

the flowers want to hide my bitter pain…


I want to hide my bitter pain from the flowers ?

The conceit of the song is that the flowers are sensitive to him : “I do not want them to see my true feelings“, and the punchline is right there in the last line, repeated : “si me ven llorando, moriran”   :  “if they see me crying, they will die“.

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It is a very beautiful song indeed, and in the live version on film we see tears in Omara’s eyes as she sings that line, Ibrahim Ferrer notices and wipes them away, an extremely affecting moment.

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Jenny and I flew to Havana in December 1999, just as the entire planet was getting ready to celebrate the millennium.  Fidel Castro, alone among world leaders, had declared that the millennium was actually one year hence, when 2000 became 2001, since 2001 was the first year of the new millennium, and if you think about it, (do the math!) he is absolutely correct.  The year 2000 signals the end of the 99th year of the century.  But the speedometer numbers turning together became a far more potent symbol and the world sheepishly followed the digits.   Meanwhile Air France lost all our bags en route (we flew via Paris, and having missed the plane because it wasn’t announced in the lounge, had to overnight in Madrid where we went clubbing briefly).  They turned up six days later in Havana Airport (where we went every day to the same desk in case our bags had been flown in), minus one bag which never did turn up.  They also lost a bag on the way home.  Never fly Air France readers !

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Havana was extraordinary, crumbling like a beautiful classy kind old lady, a once-magnificent colonial city on the sea with two economies, local and tourist.   Jenny was often mistaken for a local cubana which meant that a)  I’d bought her, and that b) now and again we paid the tourist price (2p for an ice-cream).   We thought we’d see some of the Buena Vista musicians playing somewhere, but that was our naïve European dream.   We met Carlos & Manolo, theatre director and lighting designer (via Miriam Ryle‘s contact) and they showed us their beautiful city.    Their aunt ran a local restaurant downstairs, called a paladare, the night we ate there our hotel companion John Singleton (director of Boyz n The Hood) was also there with his family.  We celebrated New Year’s Eve with Carlos & Manolo and their friends at a rooftop party, and ended up dancing on the Malecon – the long sea wall – at 5am.  It’s a magical city.   After a few nights in an Old Town Hotel we moved to an apartment in one of the majestic crumbling blocks near the centre with Manolo’s uncle’s family.   It keeps the tourist money in the community.   After about a week there, and various adventures which I’ll account for another time, we received a phone call from Jenny’s sister Lucy who was house-sitting for us in Brighton : we’d been burgled.   We cut short the holiday by three weeks and flew back to England to deal with insurance and nonsense.  We’ve never been back to Cuba, but I’m sure it’s different now.

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I should briefly salute the great Ry Cooder, whose musical career has been one of true wonder, from playing on Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Little Feat’s Willin’, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs, and The Beach Boys’s Kokomo to producing Bobby King & Terry Evans, playing with Ali Farka Toure, as well as producing countless great LPs of his own, most notably perhaps Bop Til You Drop and Chavez Ravine and the soundtrack to Paris, Texas.  I’ve only scratched the surface of his work to be honest.

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There are two versions of Silencio below, both by Ibrahim Ferrer. It’s a latin classic written in the 50s by the Puerto Rican Gershwin/Cole Porter/Irving Berlin, national treasure Rafael Hernandez and which has been covered by many great stars from Trio Los Principes in 1960 to Venezualan tenor Felipe Pirela in 1966.  The version from the film has Ry Cooder’s slightly intrusive slide guitar, tastefully toned down somewhat for the studio version recorded some two years later.  Both, however, are utterly stunning.   I prefer the solo LP version personally, but the film with them singing live is so moving…

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Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Wim Wenders :

Silencio, from Ibrahim Ferrer’s first solo LP :


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. stevekalinich
    Jun 22, 2015 @ 10:29:19

    Another great song and Blog . The movie is incredible and I love the movie .Ralph the sis an excellent choice.Very powerful and touching.I had the privilege of performing and reciting for Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders at a memorial recently and they both cam up to me afterwards love sjk



  2. Trackback: My Pop Life #90 : Didi – Khaled | Magicmenagerie's Blog

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