Los Zafiros

from http://www.acappellanews.com/archive/001759.html

I recently fell in love with Los Zafiros (the Sapphires).  I heard a couple tracks on WFHB recently and downloaded their collection Bossa Cubano from emusic.  The group’s former musical director Manuel Galbán, who was later a founding member of the Buena Vista Social Club, died on July 7 (2011), which must be why I heard the set on the radio.

I don’t know if I’d ever heard of this amazing group.  They formed in Havana in 1961, inspired by American doo-wop (the Platters) but also incorporating various more local Cuban & Latin American influences (bolero, bossa nova, samba).

This is one of their trippier numbers, that effect obviously underlined by this video:

The vocal harmonies are unearthly, especially Ignacio Elejalde’s eerie falsetto, as in “Bossa Cubana,” the title track of their collection, which gets into some kind of strange Tom Ze territory with its vocal sound effects (is that a crow?) and captivatingly stuttering rhythms.  Or the train sounds and crazily-rapid patter in “La Caminadora.”  Amazing stuff that I prefer over any of the classic U.S. doo-wop.  My favorites, though, are the haunting torch songs like “Cancion de Orfeo.”  I’m surprised that the music hasn’t been done to death in movie soundtracks.

There’s a documentary I want to see about the group, Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time. This from the film’s website explains that they led troubled, fast rock and roll lives and (most of them) died young:

When the opportunity presented itself in 1965 to tour abroad with a group of Cuban performers known as The Grand Music Hall of Cuba, Los Zafiros were ready. They appeared in Eastern Bloc cities such as Moscow, Warsaw and East Berlin, though it was in Paris, at the legendary Olympia Theatre, that the five young men from Cuba really made their mark. While their international following continued to grow, escalating political tensions prevented them from gaining recognition in the United States. Los Zafiros returned to Cuba at the peak of their success, though problems had already begun to appear between the members.

As the popularity of the group increased, Galbán’s role expanded well beyond the music. A firm hand was needed to guide the talents and temperaments of these passionate young men. A fight between Kike and Chino one night at the Oasis Hotel completely destroyed a hotel room. Stories of their misbehavior became almost as much a part of their appeal as the incredible sounds they produced. Going without food or sleep for days at a time, Kike, Ignacio and El Chino often hit the bars as soon their doors were opened. They were killing themselves and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

With hit records rolling out of Havana’s EGREM Studios, the growing excesses of Los Zafiros’ were forgiven though not completely forgotten. Foreign promoters, afraid of the group’s increasingly disruptive reputation, eventually began canceling many overseas tours.

Within Cuba, their notorious activities and the changing musical tastes caused the quintet to drift out of political and professional favor. Frustrated by the unprofessional conditions and declining interest in the band among Cuban fans and international promoters, Galbán left the group in 1972. After his departure, the remaining members tried singing with an orchestra and made a few recordings but the results were not as before.

Los Zafiros spiraled downward until officially disbanding in the mid-70’s. Ignacio died in 1981 at 37 from complications of several heart attacks. Kike died at the same age in 1982 from cirrhosis of the liver. El Chino, beset by severe vision, speech and drinking problems, lived alone back in Cayo Hueso until his death on August 8, 1995 at age 56.

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