Los Zafiros, Timeless in Cuba Los Zafiros, or The Sapphires, was bigger than The Beatles — in Cuba, anyway. Fresh Air's rock historian reviews a new DVD about the band: Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time.


Los Zafiros, Timeless in Cuba

Los Zafiros, Timeless in Cuba

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Zafiros 200
Courtesy of Lorenzo DeStefano

I'm not generally a fan of Cuban music. But when I read about Los Zafiros, a Cuban group that had incorporated elements of calypso, bossa nova, and doo-wop into their sound — and was offered a chance to see Lorenzo DeStefano's documentary about them, now out on DVD — curiosity got the best of me. I'm a sucker for great harmonies, and I was intrigued.

Havana's Trillo Park was –- and is, apparently –- a place where musicians hang out, and it was there in 1961 that Miguel Cancio, a professional musician since his teens, ran into guitarist Manuel Galban, and decided to put together a singing group. Soon, they were joined by three other young men: Ignacio Elejalde, Leoncio "Kike" Morua, and Eduardo "El Chino" Hernandez. After a few rehearsals, they discovered they had something going that nobody had ever done before in Cuba.

Their not-so-secret weapon was El Chino. Tall, skinny, handsome, and possessed of what Galban insists was a natural countertenor voice, he was able to mesmerize audiences with his emotional delivery. The other singers wove in and out and occasionally took the lead from him, and, along with amazing improvised choreography, the live show was a sight to behold.

The comparison the film makes to The Beatles isn't a coincidence. Los Zafiros arose during the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a point when ordinary Cubans had no idea if their young revolution would succeed or not, and were afraid of both the Russians and the Americans dragging them into war. Their rise to the top was simultaneous with the elation Cubans felt after the crisis was defused.

The Beatles also arrived during a period of great uncertainty, almost immediately following John F. Kennedy's assassination, and their success is often keyed to Americans needing something to feel good about. Both groups were swept away by cultural and political forces they hadn't created themselves, and both found themselves celebrated –- and running away from girls with scissors wanting locks of their hair.

Both groups, too, fell apart. For Los Zafiros, it was after a 1965 tour that took them to Berlin, Warsaw, Paris, and Moscow, playing to packed houses. They were even offered a tour of the U.S., but turned it down. Back in Cuba, they recorded some more, but even though they were tightly connected –- El Chino had married Cancio's sister, for instance -– they had come too far, too quickly. Several of them began to drink too much, and Cancio emigrated to Miami, something he was apparently able to do fairly easily, but wasn't an option for the others. Elejalde and Morua died in the early '80s, and El Chino, wracked by alcoholism, finally passed away in 1995.

This story would be emotionally wrenching enough, but the film frames it with another story: Miguel's visit to Cuba after 30 years to reunite with the other living Zafiro, Manuel Galban, and revisit the haunts of his youth. As it turns out, Los Zafiros are still remembered by everyone — one of the most amazing scenes shows a Zafiros tribute band, Los Nuevos Zafiros, playing in Trillo Park, with Miguel and Manuel singing along. Also singing along with them off to the side are three little girls of about 6 who seem to know all the lyrics.

Like I said, I'm no fan of Cuban music, but it's impossible not to be moved by Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time. The lush colors of Cuba, the old entertainers remembering the lost comrades of their youth, and the unique sound of the group weave a spell that will stick with you long after the credits roll.