Manuel Galban's Meandering 'Mambo' Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban became known in the U.S. after playing with Buena Vista Social Club and winning a Grammy with Ry Cooder. But Galban has long been famous in Cuba because of his work with one of Cuba's most famous groups of the 1960s.
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Manuel Galban's Meandering 'Mambo'

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Manuel Galban's Meandering 'Mambo'


This is WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a Shakespearean actor brings flare to a retro French Farce, but first, Guitarist Manuel Galban is a legend twice in his native Cuba. First, as a member of one of the most popular Cuban groups of the 1960, Los Zafiros, then three decades later for winning a Grammy with Ry Cooder. Audiences in the United States known him for that recording and for his performances on the various "Buena Vista Social Club" CDs. Reese Erlich visited Galban at his home and sent us this report.

REESE ERLICH: Manuel Galban lives in a comfortable, quiet, three-bedroom apartment in central Havana. He walks over to a living room wall filled with photos of him with such notables as actor Andy Garcia and musicians from the "Buena Vista Social Club" CD. There's even one of him shaking hands with Fidel Castro. I joked, who's that musician.

Mr. MANUEL GALBAN (Cuban Guitarist): (Through translator) I know the musician? Yes, and he plays very strongly.

ERLICH: As a young man, Galban played the Cuban country guitar called the tres.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

ERLICH: He moved from his village in eastern Cuba to Havana in 1956. There, Galban adapted techniques from the tres to electric guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

ERLICH: Pablo Menendez is American born guitarist who's lived in Havana for 42 years and leads the group Mezcla. He says by the early '60s, Galban had developed his signature style.

Mr. PABLO MENENDEZ (Leader, Mezcla): He was one of the first people to take up electric guitar as his exclusive instrument in Cuba and he discovered a unique way of playing it where he's not strumming it, he's actually picking the notes and, you know, doing our (unintelligible) saw very well to the rhythmic characteristics of most Cuban music.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: In Havana, Manuel Galban heard all kinds of music, especially over the radio. He was struck by the sound of American rock guitarist Duane Eddy.

(Soundbite of Duane Eddy playing guitar)

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) Duane Eddy, yes, I've always liked his playing. He plays a style very similar to mine with the bass strings.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) I wasn't imitating him, but I had a certain similar sound.

(Soundbite of guitar)

ERLICH: In 1962, Galban joined a newly formed group called Los Zafiros. Galban and the four singers played all kinds of Cuban music, bossa nova, and even calypso in a doo-wop style.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) When I became a member of Los Zafiros, I encouraged them to play more rapidly. Here's the original speed of our calypso.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) And then we played a more Cuban style.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) And everyone liked it much better.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Los Zafiros were huge in Cuba. Pablo Menendez says they were as big as the Beatles.

Mr. MENENDEZ: They were very, very popular and people would just go crazy anyplace they went. They were young and cute and you know, had hot music and you know, that always works.

ERLICH: Galban left Los Zafiros in 1972 and went on to play with several groups, none of them as popular. Then, in the late 1990s, he met Ry Cooder, the American guitarist who came to Cuba and ended up producing the famous "Buena Vista Social Club" CD. In December 2001, Cooder and Galban sat down in a Havana studio with no written music. Everything was created in jam sessions.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MANUEL GALBAN (Musician): (Through translator) I closed my eyes and the music came. Ry joins in on guitar, it was beautiful. I opened my eyes, it was an aha moment. I didn't know they were recording. I said, I was almost sleepwalking. Ry said, That's the title, "Bolero Sonambulo," "Sleepwalking Bolero."

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: The CD was called "Mambo Sinuendo", which means meandering mambo, and it was nominated for a Grammy in 2003. Galban and his wife prepared to fly to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony, but U.S. policy prohibits visits by Cuban musicians. So when "Mambo Sinuendo" won the Grammy as best pop instrumental, the Galbans heard about it over the phone. Manuel's wife, Magda Gutierrez, says they didn't believe it.

Ms. MAGDA GUTIERREZ: (Through translator) When we first heard about it on the phone, we thought it was a joke. But the person said, yes, really. When it was announced in the media, all our neighbors heard about it. In our building and the one next door, everyone was shouting: Galban won, Galban won the Grammy!

ERLICH: Her husband is now 77 years old and officially retired. But he still plays two gigs a week in Cuban nightclubs.

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) I practice a lot. Hey, listen to me. It's hard to play a cabaret accompanying the rumba on rhythm guitar, it's very hard.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALBAN: (Through translator) I'm the metronome.

ERLICH: Manuel Galban plans to keep that metronome wound tight. He is now preparing for a European tour with the "Buena Vista Social Club" Band.

For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And to hear songs from Manuel Galban and Ry Cooder's "Mambo Sinuendo", you can visit

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