Ibrahim Ferrer was just a few weeks away from finishing his third solo album, "Mi Sueño," ("My Dream") when the 78-year-old Cuban singer died after complications from emphysema. Up until that day in August 2005, Ferrer, who rose to international fame as the suave tenor of the Buena Vista Social Club, always insisted he had an angel on his shoulder, and it was hard to argue with him. A minor figure from Havana's big-band era, Ferrer was shining shoes, at age 68, when he was plucked from obscurity by American guitarist Ry Cooder in 1997. Cooder had heard that some of the great bandleaders and players from Havana's pre-revolutionary era were still around, and the producer wanted to capture some of the island's more traditional styles before they died out with the artists. With the help of Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, Cooder did just that. As the Buena Vista Social Club, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, guitarist Compay Segundo and Ferrer resurrected sounds from Cuba's big-band era and ushered back a gentle old style called son. Ferrer played Europe, put out solo albums that went gold and won three Grammy Awards. Clearly, someone was watching over the talented little man in the Kangol cap.
Ferrer's parting gift, "Mi Sueño," is all about boleros—love ballads—and it's hard to believe that any of these songs were done in more than one or two takes. They are underproduced, imperfect and beautiful. In "Dos Almas," ("Two Souls") when Ferrer pours his heart out over a lone piano, you can almost feel the aged booths and smell the rum of an after-hours Havana nightclub. His voice is still sweet and emotive, but there are also a few rough edges that come with age—and it makes these songs all the more moving. As with most numbers here, there is a genuine, unfettered quality to this album that lends a more up-close-and-personal feel than most of his other major recordings. In "Quizas, Quizas" ("Perhaps, Perhaps") Ferrer sings with Buena Vista's leading lady, Omara Portuondo. The two trade lines, her deep, smoky vocals complementing his higher-pitched, soothing delivery, and the chemistry between the two that was first heard on the Buena Vista debut is reignited. The music is elegant, refined and driven by jazzy, Cuban-style piano in the vein of the late Ruben Gonzalez (he is on one track here), laid-back tres (a Cuban, guitar-like intrument), soft horns, and most everything else you'd find in a pre-Castro nightclub.
The only disturbing thing about "Mi Sueño" is that it reminds us of what we've lost. Ferrer was not only the last of the great son singers from Cuba, but he was also a one-of-a-kind vocalist—a carefree performer who can move audiences with innate grace and style. After listening to "Mi Sueño," it's not hard to believe that Ferrer's presence—and voice—really did have something to do with heavenly intervention.