His mother died when he was 12, leaving him orphaned and forcing him to sing on the streets (busk) to earn money. The next year, Ferrer joined his first ever musical group, a duet alongside his cousin called Jovenes del Son (Spanish: Youths of Rhythm). They performed at private functions and the two youths managed to scrape together enough money to live. Over the next few years, Ferrer would perform with many musical groups, including Conjunto Sorpresa and Orquesta Chepin-Choven. The leader of the latter composed one of Ferrer's biggest hits, El Platanal de Bartolo. Ferrer was an adherent of the Santería faith, a blending of traditional African religions and Catholicism. In 1953 Ferrer started to play with Pacho Alonso's group in Santiago, Cuba. In 1959 the group moved permanently to Havana, renaming themselves Los Bocucos, after a type of drum widely used in Santiago. With Alonso, Ferrer primarily performed son, guaracha and other up-tempo songs.
However, he yearned to sing boleros. It was not until almost 40 years later, with the release of Ry Cooder's Grammy Award winning, Oscar nominated Buena Vista Social Club recording in 1999, that Ferrer's talent as a bolero singer would become widely known. In 1996, Ferrer took part in the World Circuit sessions, when it was announced that an old-style bolero singer would be required. In that year, he recorded the album A Toda Cuba le Gusta with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, an album nominated for a Grammy Award. In 1998 he recorded an album for the Cuban label EGREM, Tierra Caliente: Ibrahim Ferrer con Los Bocucos. It features Ferrer's unique voice and phrasing, band leader Roberto Correra's rich, intricate arrangements and excellent lead trumpet, and tight, rhythmic playing by the Bocucos.
The album's is in the style of son-jazz big band fusion. In 1999 Ry Cooder recorded Ferrer's first solo album. In 2000 Ferrer famously received a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist – at the age of 72. In 2001 he appeared on the track Latin Simone on the self-titled debut album of virtual-band Gorillaz. In 2004 Ferrer won a Grammy, but was denied permission by the U.S. government to enter the U.S.
to receive his award under a U.S. law designed for "terrorists, drug dealers and dangerous criminals." Ferrer still toured internationally in Europe in 2005, and released his second solo recording, Buenos Hermanos, in 2003. Ferrer's contributed in 2005 to the APE Vision (Artists' Project Earth) album Rhythms Del Mundo: Cuba, a collaboration with artists Coldplay, U2, Sting, Dido, Faithless, Jack Johnson, Maroon 5 and others. Ferrer's last recording was Mi Sueño, an album devoted to the bolero. It was released in 2006. Ibrahim Ferrer died at age 78 of multiple organ failure on August 6, 2005 at CIMEQ hospital in Havana (Cuba) after returning from a European tour. He was buried in the Colón Cemetery, Havana.
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