Arizona Daily Star
Friday, April 11, 2003

Review by Anthony Broadman

Guitarist Manuel Galbán went from the dominant pop group of 1960s Cuba to the dominant Cuban pop group in the world today. His licks, as he plays with the Buena Vista Social Club, are smoother. He doesn't have the same surf-edge as he carried with Los Zafiros. But even in his eighth decade, the core of cool is there. If you missed Galbán with the Buena Vista Social Club at Centennial Hall last Sunday, you can catch him in the documentary "LOS ZAFIROS: MUSIC FROM THE EDGE OF TIME," which plays at the Screening Room tonight at 8 as part of the Arizona International Film Festival.

In the documentary, director Lorenzo DeStefano examines Los Zafiros' lasting legacy in Cuba: a level of popularity bordering, still, on idolatry. "We were a group, so popular, so beloved that actually, still, when we're on the radio and the television, everyone is still fascinated by Los Zafiros," Galbán said through an interpreter at his hotel before Sunday's Buena Vista Social Club show. The film supports Galbán's claims. Los Zafiros win a Miami radio station "battle of the bands," and in man-on-the-street interviews; Cubans sing Zafiros songs and remember brushes with the band like they would births, deaths and weddings. Formed in Havana's Cayo Hueso neighborhood in the early 1960s, Los Zafiros melded U.S. doo-wop with tropical rhythms - you might call it doo-lypso or bossa-wop. Whatever it was, Los Zafiros - The Sapphiresin English – took hold of the island. Leoncio "Kike" Morua, Miguel "Miguelito" Cancio, countertenor Ignacio Elejalde and Eduardo Elio "El Chino" Hernández formed the vocal base of the group, but it wasn't until Galbán replaced their original accompanist in 1963 that Los Zafiros developed their lasting sound.

Raucous world tours and rock-star fame marked Los Zafiros' wild ride at the top of Cuba's music scene. But their triumph, predictably, was mirrored in profundity by their descent. The story of Los Zafiros is ultimately a tragic one. In one scene, Galbán and Cancio, the only remaining members of the band, visit Hernández's grave. Cancio, in what looks like an act of anger, breaks a liquor bottle on the tomb. "By the time we got to Chino's grave, which was the last, It had been a long, hot day and you could literally smell the bodies out there," director DeStefano said. "It was a heavy day, and everybody was very emotional." "He did this as a ritual, you understand?" Galbán said. "It's like a goodbye or a toast - it's like a ritual, in Cuba." But if Cancio seemed angry about the loss of his friends and bandmates, he had good reason. Elejalde died in 1981 at the age of 37 from a brain hemorrhage. Kike died in 1983 from cirrhosis of the liver. El Chino died in 1995.

"The problem with El Chino in the last years was that he was very sick," Galbán said. "He had difficulty walking. His eyesight was bad because he threw himself away with drink - a lot of alcohol. "For my wife, daughter and I, it was sadder because we saw the way he died; it was more of a deterioration." Through interviews with family members and footage of the band in its prime, the film reanimates the dead Zafiros' vibrancy.

The last time Galbán saw El Chino it was at a performance of the new Los Zafiros - Los Nuevos Zafiros - in a club called the Net. "He sang that night - his voice was already going - but the public applauded him very much; they applauded him very much," Galbán remembers. Cancio has lived in Miami since 1993. His professional stock hasn't skyrocketed like Galbán's, whose new guitar album, "Mambo Sinuendo" with Ry Cooder, was released this year. "I'm on almost all of the (Buena Vista) recordings," Galbán said proudly. DeStefano calls him the Cuban Anthony Quinn, and with his hair slicked back, the description is dead-on. When asked if this is the height of his career, he answered, "Pienso que sí.” "I think so."