Lorenzo DeStefano’s Los Zafiros: Music From the Edge of Time

cover for Los ZafirosThere has been a re-awakening of interest in the music of Cuba. Even with its turbulent history, the island, which sits just 90 miles off the tip of Florida, was almost forgotten as the United States sought to ignore it. But the Buena Vista Social Club projects and their attendant publicity woke the world up to the rhythms and melodies of a strange protected land. The congas, the guitars, the horns and vocals of generations of Cubans are being listened to everywhere now. Amidst all this carry-on was the release of a totally unique recording. Nick Gold’s anthology of Los Zafiros’ Bossa Cubana introduced the cool doo-wop sounds of Cuba’s biggest pop group ever to the rest of the world. Music From The Edge of Time provides the images and story needed for a fully developed picture of this amazing group, and shows just how popular the group was in Cuba.

Los Zafiros (The Sapphires) follows two original members of the group around Havana as they seek to tell the story of their early successes. The other three gems are lost, victims of bad health and alcohol abuse. The time is the early 60s, the height of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis. This writer recalls with great clarity a letter from my aunt in the US which was filled with terror and the possibility that it would be the last time we heard from her. It was a scary time. But from this time came some of the brightest and most invigorating music ever: The Beatles, and the rest of the British Invaders; the Folk Revival, and all the other new music that we in North America were listening to was exciting. In Havana, time moved more slowly. Youngsters in Cuba were digging the 50s sounds of America’s Platters, Mills Brothers and Modernaires. When they combined those smooth, tight harmony vocals with the Latin rhythms and some snazzy choreography … four young men from Havana became pop idols!

They began in 1962 singing to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar played by Oscar Aguirre, but their trademark sound was cemented the following year when Manuel Galban came on board with his unique and sensual electric guitar, adding the twang of Duane Eddy, and a touch of rock’n’roll to the mix. Galban (whose new duet album with Ry Cooder was reviewed here) is one of the hosts for this filmic tour of Los Zafiros. He still lives in Havana, with his wife of 35 years. He wanders around the city with his guitar on his back. He visits EGREM Studios. He plays in the local watering hole. He looks on with pride as his daughter plays the piano. Music is his life. He is a charming genial host.

Miguel Cancio was a founding member of Los Zafiros. It was his sapphire ring which inspired their name. He is the only Sapphire to have left Cuba. He lives in Florida, where his son produced a bio-film about his father’s group in 1997. In fact Music From The Edge of Time is the third film about Los Zafiros. A Cuban documentary was made in the late 90s. Miguelito returned to Cuba in December 2001 to participate in this film and to reunite with Galban. The film is filled with emotional scenes of reunion as Galban and Miguelito travel to their old haunts.

The amazing thing about the film is the number of times it touches the emotions! Several times this viewer felt tears welling in my eyes, or had to swallow the lump in my throat. The new footage is intercut with archival footage from Zafiros appearances on Cuban TV and historical newsreels to help set the frame of reference. The archival footage of performances is wonderful, but it is the new material that grabs the heartstrings. The interviews with Cuban celebrities who talk about the impact of Los Zafiros are fascinating. They speak in Spanish, with English subtitles. Nick Gold, of World Circuit Records, who aided in bringing their music to the forefront, is interviewed. Ry Cooder is represented by one photo. Perhaps most impressive is the incredible level of saturation Los Zafiros’ music must have had in Cuban culture. As records are played, as the two old men continue their odyssey, everyone on camera is singing along, from old men on street corners to the kids playing in the park! They all know the words to the songs!

When Galban and Miguelito meet in EGREM to re-record two of Los Zafiros’ tunes, Oscar “Cachaito” Lopez joins on bass, and a couple of percussionists beat out the rhythms. Galban’s twangy guitar snakes and stings, and Miguel Cancio sings the lead that he never did before. Beautiful. They travel to Varadero, where they eat lobster, drink and sing with the brothers of their fallen comrade “Kike” Morua. While there they stand on the beach, look out at the ocean. “I live over there, in Florida,” Miguelito says quietly. “I know,” replies Galban. It is a powerful moment.

Galban left the group in 1972. The remaining quartet tried to soldier on before disbanding officially in 1975. Ignacio Elejalde died of a brain hemorrhage in 1983 he was 37 years old. “Kike” died in 1983 (cirrhosis of the liver) and Elio, “El Chino” Hernandez had several health problems before passing on in ’95. Galban and Miguelito visit the graves of their compadres, for one last drink.

Los Zafiros was filmed beautifully by Thomas Ackerman, the island of Cuba providing a perfect setting for the cinematographer’s art. Producer and director Lorenzo DeStefano did a marvelous job in balancing the archival with the new, and the whole team has created a stunning work of art. It stands as a brilliant tribute to an extraordinary group of musicians, to an exotic and exciting country, to an era that existed on the edge of time.

(MVD Entertainment Group, 2002)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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