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…

or

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 :

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My Pop Life #26 : At The River – Groove Armada

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At The River   –   Groove Armada

…if you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there…

It’s hard to re-create the feeling of 1999 years after it happened – but there was a distinctive atmosphere.   It was millenial.   There was a Y2K bug  which was apparently going to crash the internet, all the clocks and most of the electrical goods.   It was an end-of-the-world feel, simply to do with the numbers, and a frisson of nervous energy was pulsing around everything.   It was exciting to be alive in that very summer, when dance music had taken over the vibe and the mood, and down on the South Coast if you weren’t partying like it was 1999 to Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx, The Chemical Brothers and Phats & Small, then dude, you were never going to party or dance ever.   I was 42 and still going to nightclubs – one of the things I like about Brighton is that its legendary tolerance embraces old geezers inside nightclubs.   Nobody cares.   We’d frequent The Escape usually, sometimes The Zap, or maybe someone’s house with a crew that included Patrick Sullivan, Josh, Mark and Keith Davey, Louise Yellowlees, Yarra Mills, Debbie and Soriya, Stompers, Albion fans, plenty others, many of them named Mark, all hands in the air;  most people on a) cocaine b) ecstasy c) weed or d) all of the above.   Not to mention the lager lager lager.   Not my tipple, but back then it probably was.   Of course the bohemia crowd (see My pop life #13) were ever-present and a gang of DFLs were regularly in attendance.   Down From London of course!   The imminent apocalypse made every night party night and every party shimmer with sex.   But it wasn’t all jump around jump around.

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In the summer there were beach barbecues which stretched out til way after the sun had gone down, mini-bonfires in the stones you could sit around until the tide came lapping in and sizzled it out.   And that’s where Groove Armada came in I guess.   This is such a chill-out song, a lazy Sunday Afternoon song,  a greet-the-dawn song and I love every tiny detail about it.   The strange opening sample (blue shoes???) to the lazy drums, the Patti Page song “Old Cape Cod” which contributes all the lyrics and the general summer’s day feel but mostly the spectacular trombone lick which is the cherry on the icing on the cake.

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Tried to find out if it was Ashley Slater (Brighton resident bone man and Freak Power pop star) or Big Jim Patterson (Dexys and Elvis Costello boner) but I’m happy to report that Groove Armada DJ Andy Cato also plays the trombone, and played the phrase himself when they were putting the LP Vertigo together in the Lake District.

All put together this piece of music for me transcends time and place and rises up to somewhere holy and ethereal, untouchable and perfect, and is therefore one of my actual favourites songs of all time and ever forever amen.

We went to Cape Cod again last summer which gave me the excuse to play the song again over and over.  It worked its magic one more golden time.

Short Version :

Full fat creamy Version :