Manuel Galbán with Los Zafiros. Photo: Manuel Galbán Archive

Manuel Galbán: «Nacieron para cantar»

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Los Zafiros had run out of guitar and were going crazy all over Havana looking for one to continue with the quartet. They had worked with Oscar Aguirre, until they had I do not know what contradictions and he thought it was best to follow his path. They tested several guitarists and pianists, but none set for one thing or the other. One day Reynaldo Hierrezuelo, that of Los Compadres, who knew me about doing ciphers He told them: "Look no further than the man you need is in the Kasbach," and I know that they went several times to look for me at the club, but they didn't find me. The next day they gave me the message, but I never did to locate them. I had enough work and very little time.

I had arrived in Havana in 1957 and had made my way with good luck. I was born in Gibara, imagine what I was going to do there in music. Here I started to play piano at the Panamerican and at Club Six, also at the Hotel Regis, on Prado Street: anywhere. I got to have three radio programs, one with Evelio Rodríguez, at 11:30, peasant music; with the bolero singer Lino Borges at five in the afternoon and another with the group Alejandro and his Boys, at eight at night and that began with a phrase "Icui cuí cui!" and the thing sounded very good. At night, I worked at the Oasis Club and almost always ended up at the Kasbash, which was left in H and 19. Many musicians would look for me from time to time “if Fulano was going to record a montunito, if it was necessary for a recording with Mengano, a jingle… ”, so I worked with who you least imagine. They were looking for me, well, I have that privilege, right? that pride, so to speak. Because I've always had a good ear, honestly, maybe I haven't had anything else, but a good ear, yes. Because I studied a little ... something. But I am rather self-taught.

Finally Los Zafiros gave me a night at El Escondite de Hernando, which was a small night club with a lot of swing in El Vedado, where I was instrumental with the electric guitar and accompanied whoever it was. They were led by Rolando Vergara, the composer of I've come and Nothing inspires nothing. We agreed to meet at my house, the next day or the other, I do not remember, on Campanario 79, on the rooftop. It was in March of the year 63. As soon as we started to review two or three numbers on the piano -La caminadora, Bellecita, which were quite popular and I knew it — I immediately saw faces of joy. El Chino began to shout “now yes, now yes!” And Miguelito told me: “Look Galbán, from now on you come to work with us, you are what we were looking for. It will be the director. ”[1]

We went to work in Camaguey where it went badly, very badly. However, when we returned to Havana with the same repertoire we debuted at the Habana Libre Caribbean cabaret with tremendous success. Then we were hired at the Costa Sur Club of Cienfuegos and we started touring almost the whole country. There began the madness. It was impossible to fulfill all the commitments, especially in the carnivals. They asked us all over Cuba.

We rehearsed at my house in Campanario, from the year 65 in Miramar and then here in this same house where I live, in El Vedado. We ride calipsos, boleros, rhythmic songs, rumbas, Mozambiques, congas. I accelerated the rhythm of the calypso, which is a bit languid, so that in addition to singing it they created their choreographies, because they danced very well. It is like a subgenus of calypso what I did, to interpret it in the Cuban way, a "half time" relative of the guaracha.

The composers brought me their numbers to harmonize and assemble the voices with the help of Kike. You know our repertoire: nothing to do with that of the other quartets, which were great like Meme's, like Aida's, Del Rey's ... but nobody looked like them. That they copied The Platters is nonsense. Admiring them is another thing, it is natural, and taking advantage of what is well done is the ABC of music. The least that passed through those heads was to imitate anyone since they joined the house of the composer Néstor Milí, author of El yerbero moderno that Celia Cruz sang, and who gave them a first repertoire, Cuban one hundred percent. Then it was that they sang My prayer, Banana Boat and some Brazilian things. They were also helped by composer José Robles Díaz. They were very young, 22, 24, 25 years ... the oldest was Miguel, and he didn't reach 30.

None of the four had musical knowledge, but Kike had a divine ear. He mounted the voices at the beginning and had very good ideas that I used often when I started doing it. Milí helped them whenever he could, got them a job and thanks to him - who was a friend of Pedro Vega Francia, administrator of the Nationalized Panart -, it was possible to record the first album, which we did nowhere. It was a scandal. I recorded with an acoustic guitar to which I stuck a microphone in the box with Scotch tape, or think it was a Fender as people believe. I called Papito Hernández and Cachaíto López to play the bass, and we put down and bongo. The four voices were recorded with a single microphone. On the radio you heard that disk from station to station. They hit all the numbers.

The Sapphires Photo: Manuel Galbán Archive
The Sapphires Photo: Manuel Galbán Archive

Sapphires liked children, adults, students, intellectuals, everyone. When most of the clubs and cabarets closed, we performed in tents, outdoors, wherever it was. The musicians of the orchestras of shows were out of work, but we could continue. It doesn't matter if we did a thousand times the same sentence of the same song. People loved those voices. I have not seen women as crazy as the girls who were going to see The Sapphires. It was amazing. I told them: even if they are angry, look at each other and smile. Millions of times I repeated it.

Miguelito is the only one who did not sing alone. He never wanted to, however, distinguish it in the choir: it is the true falsetto voice of the group, tenuous, very tuned, that "round" the harmony. El Chino was responsible for almost all sentimental issues (Herido de sombras, Nuestra última cita, Por no comprenderte, Muchas veces), although he also sang very well other things moved.

Kike was the eminently rhythmic voice, with a fragmented way of singing, highlighting each syllable of the lyrics of the song, what we called "chopped": Bellecita, Y sabes bien, Cuando yo la conocí, Mírame fijo. And I think that Ignacio was the true seal of the quartet, the definitive seal. Some improperly call it falsetto, and it is not so, because it is not an imposted, falsified, but natural voice, a tenorine or tenorine tenure, which is roughly equivalent to the voice of a lyric soprano (Coloratura soprano). Hey what agility you have in the high notes (Un nombre de mujer, Canción de Orfeo, Mi oración, Canción a mi Habana, He venido). It is something that does not appear frequently, for not telling you almost never. In good times, Ignacio reached an overdue Re.

They had their bad things, I will not deny it. Sometimes they got violent. I left Los Zafiros about four times, once with the Los Príncipes Trio and then in 70 as an accompanist to Ela Calvo. But then they began to send money with friends, or they came very serious to try to convince me and promise me that it was not going to happen anymore. Like some children I think he was coming back for a fatherly thing that I have inside. I couldn't leave them alone because I was the only one who could put some order in that mess. If I said "you have to do this", everyone would shut up. They did tremendous things behind me, drunkenness and arguments, but they respected me.

It turns out that El Chino was Miguel's sister's husband who, although he was the calmest, was married to Kike's sister. Those brothers-in-law lived in permanent tension. In one of the fights of the four, in Varadero, they practically destroyed a room of the International Hotel where we were performing. Some people talk about marijuana, but I tell you, at this point that I have nothing to hide, which is a lie, flatly. Never, even in the worst times I saw them smoking weed. I think they are inventions of some to burn the fire because they had a reputation for terrible and behaved like teenagers, like boys who could not mature.

Without lunch, without eating, without sleeping, as soon as the breweries opened they were there helping to raise the gate to start drinking again. There is no liver that resists that race. No one supports that, no organism. They were killing themselves and I couldn't do anything. One night Kike and El Chino had a strong fight, they hit many times, they almost killed each other and someone from the hotel went to my room to let me know, alarmed, the next morning. When I went to look for them to reprimand them, I see them in front of a bottle of drink, vocalizing. They told me, dead of laughter, "What's up Galby, did you see what we're rehearsing for tonight?" What could I do?

In 1965 we traveled to Paris with the Grand Music Hall of Cuba. I have not seen a show like that. All the first figures: Celeste Mendoza, Elena Burke, the Aragon Orchestra, Los Papines, Pello El Afrokán ... but the Sapphires were the ones that caused a great deal of rage there, with the greatest respect for my teammates. In the dressing room of the Olympia Theater - not once but several - we were proposed to continue acting in Europe and the United States if we stayed on that tour. I can tell you that none agreed, and I didn't even consider it. It's great that the movie Zafiros, locura azul I finished with that show, because there was no more stellar moment in the group's history.

They felt they had reached the end of the world. Saying "Paris" in Havana in the 60s was tremendous, nobody could get that far. Success in France was the best. Then one got used to seeing things in a different way, perhaps more inland, and the capitals of the world - which I have traveled thanks to God - no longer seem, how can I tell you? So far or so big. I know that they could have gone much further, that is a great pity, it is the terrible thing. The problems between them were getting worse. Many tours abroad were canceled or sent to other artists for fear that the Sapphires would make mischief over there.

We recorded a second long duration and then the third in 69, out there. In those years they stopped calling Los Zafiros on television, although people asked for them a lot. We did cabarets, theaters and carnivals inside. At that time the leaders of Culture sent artists who did not want Varadero: Felipe Dulzaides, Meme Solís, who was also very popular, but they did not put it on television, either Martha Strada or Celeste herself [Mendoza ]. There were periods of inactivity in which I was going to play with other people, but whenever the Sapphires were announced, success was assured.

The public never abandoned them, although already in the voices, when we worked live, they felt the effects of the bad life they were leading. Ignatius did not give those sharp, clean, precious as glass, many times the others were aphonic and barely talked among themselves. I felt that I couldn't be in the middle of that whirlwind, I didn't even rest asleep, I jumped on the bed, the tension was so great. The slogan of Los Zafiros was "four voices and a guitar". But the guitar could not more.

In 1972 they called us for the premiere of the show Me caso con una sirena, by Enrique Núñez Rodríguez at the Cabara Continental de Varadero. Although they were among the first in the cartel they had to mount a couple of numbers with the orchestra and now. I made short passages at the bottom of the stage. I felt very sad and I had to leave that definitively without having job security anywhere, and at times not good for wandering, because the thing was strong for music and for everything.

On the first night, at the end of the show, I told them: "I have to talk to you." They would think it was another scolding, of so many, as almost every day. "Tonight I finish with The Sapphires," I told them when they reached the dressing room, without introduction or anything. Kike and Ignacio tried to convince me not to do it and I remember Miguelito said: "It is better to walk around the beach and drown at once." Then El Chino began with his guapería: "Let him go, total, we were born alone, we don't need anyone ...". And that was the tip. That same night I went to Havana.

Photo: Manuel Galbán Archive
Photo: Manuel Galbán Archive

For a while they worked with Enrique Pessino on guitar and recorded with the ICRT orchestra, but the result was mediocre, there are those issues where you can't find the shadow of what they had been. Someone told me: "The Matamoros Trio triumphed with their guitars, they would never have achieved anything with the Philadelphia Symphony."

I disconnected completely from them and formed the Batey group to make traditional Cuban music. With that picket we traveled around the world until I retired. In 1998 I started recording again with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, then with the Buena Vista Social Club and two guitars with Ry Cooder, but that's another story. Or not: I will always be the guitarist of Los Zafiros, Los Zafiros of that hard but brilliant stage, that's why they are looking for me now. On my record with Ry Cooder we put La luna en tu mirada (Locura azul), by Luis Chanivecky, and I was very excited in the studio. How many times will I have played those chords for them.

I did not want to see them as they were in recent times: Kike and especially El Chino had become a ruin and it was very hard to see Ignacio without that voice ... Miguelito left Cuba in '93. There were ill-intentioned people who said that I He was to blame for them to end. It's not fair. If I had not left Los Sapphires, I would have been the first to die. I know they killed themselves, but it hurts. And it hurts a lot.[2]

Sometimes I remember the nice things we shared, how El Chino told a movie, the stories they made, that innocence, their silly jokes ... They never stopped being teenagers. They had a good heart, I can say it because I knew them deeply. I loved them very much and they loved me too. They were born to sing, but they didn't know how to live.

 

Vedado, Havana, 1998-2000

 

Notes

[1] The vocal quartet Los Zafiros was formed in 1961 under the direction of Néstor Milí, guitarist and composer. They were: Eduardo Hernández El Chino, Miguel Cancio, Leoncio Morúa Kike and Ignacio Ejalde.

[2] Ignacio died in 1982 as a result of a stroke. Shortly after, and for the same cause Kike died, suffering from liver cirrhosis a few years ago. Since the beginning of the 80s, El Chino suffered from a series of serious illnesses that made speech difficult and caused him to lose vision. In 1991 the documentary exhibition Herido de sombra on his trajectory in Los Zafiros, he moved the entire Island by exhibiting one night on television, and the firm Egrem hurriedly released a full-length album with twelve of his hits. In 1993 Miguelito went to live in Miami and in 1995 El Chino died in the same hospital where Ignacio and Kike ceased to exist: Calixto García, in the heart of Havana.

Help Magazine AM: PM remain a self-managed project with editorial independence.

Author of twenty books of poems, guilty of intrusion in several other disciplines: plastic arts, scripts, journalism. Obsession: the fragile memory of Cuban music.

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