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To those whose lives they briefly touched, Los Zafiros (The Sapphires) Miguel Cancio, Ignacio Elejalde, Manuel Galbán, Eduardo 'El Chino' Hernández and Leoncio Kike Morúa are legends. Their extraordinary sound - the twang of electric guitar pop, the vocal virtuosity of doo-wop and r&b, blended with a unique and imaginative rereading of bolero, calypso, bossa nova and the rhythmic heritage of Cuba was a smash in Havana and beyond in the Sixties and makes for incredible listening today.
Los Zafiros werent unique in being a group molded by their time and place. Its just that the time was the birth of teenage culture and the place was revolutionary Cuba. Given their celebrated volatility later in life, it was portentous that 1962 was the year the band was formed. The international backdrop to the dreams of the young musicians was the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Presidents Kruschev and Kennedy played brinkmanship with Soviet warheads placed on soil just off Americas coast and the world counted down to a nuclear holocaust, two youths from the tough, musical district of Cayo Hueso in old Havana, Kike Morúa and Miguelito Cancio, decided to form a vocal group.
The vocal group tradition was already well established in Cuba, (the all-female Cuartteto DAida being especially popular in the Fifties) and Miguelitos pedigree in this area was established while a member of Facundo Riveras harmonizing quartet. Honey voiced swing groups, in the shape of the Ink Spots, Mills Brothers and Modernaire, had long held an attraction for the sweet-toothed Cubans, but it was a newer sound that was inspiring Miguelito and Kike: doo-wop, the late Fifties rock n roll-orientated vocal style. The Platters, with Tonly Willians lead vocals supported by the simple doo wahs of the other singers, were pre-eminent, producing hits like Only You and The Great Pretender that were heard and copied throughout the world. There can be no doubt that they left an impression on the Cubans and Mi Oración, their version of My Prayer, is the most direct homage. The Platters were not only doo-wop inspiration for Los Zafiros: they also looked to the less sedate, more rocking groups such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, best know for their 1955 smash Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Lymon epitomized the free spirit of the generation, but fast living caused his premature death in 1968 at the age of 25. Los Zafiros were also to become no strangers to burnout.
Miguelito and Kike were encouraged to seek out a neighbor from Cayo Hueso, Néstor Milí, an experienced composer and arranger who had written for Celia Cruz and Benny Moré. It was a meeting of minds as Milí had long harbored the idea of forming a vocal group along the lines of those had heard coming out of the States. He immediately started working with the two singers and casting his net for additions to complete the group.
Although the Cuban passion for vocal harmony might not always have extended to the less hip barbershop quartets of the States, it was at a hair salon in Cayo Hueso that the group recruited their next member. The experienced Milí was convinced hed heard a better voice than Tony Williams himself when Ignacio Elejade passionately sang in a higher register than anything on record by The Platters. It was a light, tender tenor, or soprano even. Some mistook it for falsetto, the high sound produced by vocal chords pushed beyond their proper scope and lacking the usual control. But Ignacio had the range, and his supreme command of it became one of the hallmarks of the group. His informal audition piece on that day was Canción de Orfeo, and listening to the version on this collection it is easy to imagine Milís excitement.
Soon after the barbershop meeting, Ignacio, who had just returned to Havana from Spain, bumped into a childhood friend, Eduardo 'El Chino' Hernández and invited him to join the other three at Nestor Milí's house, to see if he can help us put together a song. Possessing a very personal, natural voice of great beauty, the tall and handsome Chino was final piece of the vocal jigsaw.
The group now had three singers vying for the lead role. On slow numbers Ignacio's divine tenor and Chinos straight from the heart delivery were spine tingling. On the up-tempo songs, Ignacio soared above the others. Chino glided over the rhythm with a fluid ease and Kikes rougher, staccato style was pure joie de vivre. The harmony vocals were exceptional, offering a vibrato-less cushion to the lead on the slow-burning lover songs and a charged, riffing seing on faster numbers.
The group also developed a highly, distinctive repertoire. Adding to the American influence and bolero and rumba styles theyd grown up with were further imported sounds. Calypso from Trinidad had been popularly incorporated by the great Cuban composer, Ernesto Lecuona, during his Paris shows in the Thirties and was enjoying a renewed popularity through the hits of Harry Belafonte. Bossa nova from Brazil was also gaining a new international audience and every day the singers made the short walk through the narrow streets of Cayo Hueso for rehearsals at Milí's house where they began to develop a unique take on these various styles. Given the Zafiros treatment, Trinidadians and Brazilians may be hard put to recognize the bossa of Bossa Cubana or the calypso of Y Sabes Bien.
The groups feverish rehearsals were eventually rewarded with an appearance on a local TV show and an enduring residency at Varaderos Oasis Hotel. Milí started to move to the background once the singers took to the stage, although their association had lasted long enough to establish a sound and a name. It is said that the eventual choice of Los Zafiros was made because Milí sold the sapphire ring he wore on his little finger to fund the first sharp suits that became their trademark.
Milís replacement would always prove vital. Among others, the guitarist Oscar Agüirre came and went. The talented pianist and guitarist, Manuel Galbán, busily working the clubs and radio stations of Havana, was recommended to them. They saw him play electric guitar and knew theyd found their man. Galbán, asserted Miguel, from now on youre working for us. You're exactly what were looking for. With Galbán taking the role of guitarist, pianist and musical director, the group was complete.
His style sounds rich and exotic today; sparing yet complete; utterly distinctive, yet complementary to the main course the voices. Cuba's distinguished pianist, Peruchín, was moved to suggest that to replace Galbán, you would need two guitarists. He molded the atmospheric sound-scape, so sparse and arresting to those accustomed to other Cuban pop of the time.
It didn't help that Chino was married to Miguel's sister and he in turn to Kike's. A fight at their regular gig, The Oasis in Varadero, destroyed a hotel room in time-honored rock n roll fashion. The stories and rumors were legion, one night, Kike and Chino had a really big fight, recalls Galbán, They really laid into each other, almost killed one another. The next morning someone came into my room to tell me about it, really upset. When I went to sort it out, I found them sitting with a bottle, singing. They smiled at me and said, What wrong Galby ? Look, were rehearsing for tomorrow night. You see, they were just kids. What could I say? Galbán tried to preserve a professionalism, even replacing Chino with another singer for a couple of weeks for falling out of line.
But in the early Sixties, they were young, hip and hugely successful. The hits rolled out of the EGREM studios from December 1963 onwards beginning with the first single, Nestor Milís La Caminadora (a virtuoso, show-stopping performance with Chino taking the lead) coupled with Mi Oración (featuring Ignacio's heavenly tenor). La Luna En Tu Mirada with Chino at his best and with Chino at his best and Y Sabes Bien with Kikes burning lead soon followed. In the studio the four voices and guitar were given the red carpet treatment, with accompaniment from some of Havanas finest musicians, and these recording feature such luminaries as Tata Güines on congas, Orlando Cachaíto López on bass, Roberto García on bongos and Guillermo Barreto on drums.
In keeping with the demands of sixties pop and with the established traditions of Cuban showmanship, Los Zafiros knew how to present themselves to the media. Their slick-suited dance steps, equal to anything that The Temptations would produce Stateside and with the added nuance of rumba, were sensational. When the challenge to tour the world arose, Los Zafiros were equal to it; for a while, at least.
The cultural exchange that existed between countries aligned with the Soviet Union, including some West African states and of course, Cuba, meant that snowy Moscow, Poland and Germany were among Los Zafiros ports of call in 1965. They were part of a package, the Grand Music Hall of Cuba, featuring the renowned Celeste Mendoza, Elena Burke, Orquesta Aragón and others. Like Lecuona thirty years earlier, though, France was where they really hit the big time. We were playing at the Olympia in Paris, recalled Chino back in 1991, and the Beatles were there. They had just finished that week, but they stayed another week to see us. And they loved us! They loved Ignacio's voice. They examined his throat to see if he had anything inside. They realized that there was no device, it was his natural voice. John Lennon talked a lot with me. He touched my hair. I touched his hair. They were real gentleman. They wanted us to stay on, with them, but we didn't want to. We told them we're going back to Cuba, were not from here.
Something had to give. I left Los Zafiros about four times, recalled Manuel recently. But they sent me little notes via friends or they turned up all serious, trying to convince me, promising it wouldn't happen again. But I couldn't carry on at the center of that whirlwind. Los Zafiros slogan was Four voices and a guitar. And the guitar couldn't carry on.
After Galbán's departure in 1972, the group tried singing with an orchestra and they also made a few recordings with strings and woodwind, but the results were mediocre. The spiral was ever downward. Touring Havanas most downmarket clubs, gradually imploding, Los Zafiros called it quits in 1975. But the toll taken by their excesses didn't end there.
Ignacio died in 1982 from a brain haemorrhage. He was just 39 years old. Kike, already tortured with cirrhosis of the liver suffered the same fate the following year. Chino had been hit by debilitating illnesses that left him with severely impaired sight and cruelly, speech. He lived alone back in Cayo Hueso. A TV documentary from 1991 movingly highlighted his fate and this, together with a feature-length cinema biopic on the band, helped lead to a reappraisal of the bands place in Cuba's musical history. Four years later, aged 56, Chino died, poignantly, in the same hospital as Kike and Ignacio.
Miguel is the last survivor of the singers. He moved to Miami in 1993, where he now lives and works in music, Galbán lives in Havana and is now widely regarded as a key figure in the development of Cuban music.
In 1998, with Ry Cooder producing, he took part in the World Circuit recording sessions for Ibrahim Ferrers debut album, playing on and directing two old Los Zafiros numbers. He has also assisted in finally bringing the exceptional talents of his former group to an international audience with the Bossa Cubana compilation. The experience invoked memories, good and bad. I hated seeing them the way they were at the end, he said. I think about them, the things they said and did. They never grew up. They were always just kids. But they had good hearts. They were born to sing, but they didnt know how to live. Galbán has since prominently featured on several albums for World Circuit by Cachaíto López, Omara Portuondo, Guajiro Mirabal, and the Grammy winning Buenos Hermanos album by Ibrahim Ferrer. Galbáns own duet album Mambo Sinuendo with Ry Cooder also won a Grammy in 2004. He is currently touring the world as part of an all-star group featuring Cachaíto López, Guajiro Mirabal and Aguaje Ramos.
There are currently 125 licensed groups using the name The Platters world-wide. Sweetly, there is also one, the Nuevos Zafiros, who pay homage to Cubas homegrowns.
--article by Rick Glanvill