Forget Me Not

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It's the sound of a lost world. Listen to the exquisitely romantic lilt of the voice floating out of Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, and you can imagine the rakish young Cuban singer, decades ago, strolling the elegant boulevards of Havana. It was there that Ferrer first emerged as one of the acclaimed masters of son, the rural folk style that spawned mambo and salsa. Those were the golden days of Cuban music, before the revolution left many of the great artists of Ferrer's generation scraping to get by. Despite his skill, including a way of making the traditionally slow-moving ballads sparkle with life, Ferrer suddenly became an unwanted relic of the island's precommunist past. The rustic sound he loved so much held dwindling relevance to the sleek, popular sounds of modern Cuba. So in the early 1990s, having never acquired any renown beyond Cuban shores, he quit music in frustration and turned to shining shoes for a living, which earned him more money anyway.

In 1997 Ferrer was plucked off a Havana street by California guitarist Ry Cooder, who invited him to sing on a new album he was producing, Buena Vista Social Club. That record became a surprise hit in America, in no small part because of Ferrer's expert work, and led to this, his solo debut. "The Cuban Nat King Cole," as Cooder calls him, now savors a sweet, unexpected stardom. Says he: "I've been able to fix up my house a little." Ferrer is 72, and his voice lacks the strength it once had, but its power is undiminished. "I don't want the flowers to know of my life's torment," he sings in Spanish on Silencio. "If they knew of my suffering they would cry." That crack you hear in his voice? It's real.