Los Zafiros An authentic treasure in Cuban music

Re: Joaquín Borges Triana (ancicuba@infomed.sld.cu)

Enviado: lunes, 29 de octubre de 2012, 10:05

Para: Tahimi Arboleya (tahimiarboleya@oncubamagazine.com)

Note from the Editor: We had asked Joaquín to write an article on the vocal group Los Zafiros, but after reading Joaco’s email on the subject, and given some last-minute complications that make it impossible for the article to be finished, we decided to publish our contributor’s email in full, so read it as though it were an experimental sort of article.

Dear Tahimi:

I always say that things are better or worse, but never like you plan them. I had reckoned that by now, I would have handed in to OnCuba the article on Los Zafiros that I promised to do. Nevertheless, my computer crashed a week ago and the solution has taken much longer than I thought. Now I am writing to you using the email of the ANCI [National Association of Blind Persons], taking advantage of the fact that I’m here at the office.  

Because of the difficulties that came up with my PC—leading me to evoke the wisdom of that famous phrase pronounced by one of Cuba’s sports stars on a local television program, when he said that “technique [or technology] is technique [or technology], and without technique [or technology], there is no technique [or technology]”— I have not been able to exchange the agreed-upon emails with Miguel Cancio, the quartet’s only survivor. I was going to talk to him about the article that I want to write about that vocal group, which is why it occurs to me to tell you about some of my ideas, so that you can get them to him and we can make some progress that way.

The first thing I would like to highlight is that when you talked to me about doing an article on Los Zafiros, I got very excited, because thinking about the group’s singers brings back some very pleasant childhood memories. My family used to have gatherings on Sunday, and various friends would come. One person who was there every time was my Aunt Nereida Borges López, or Nera, as we all called her, who would always play a popular song from the ‘60s when she sat down at the piano. Of course, that would sometimes include songs from the repertory of Los Zafiros, songs that were also sung by my father at these get-togethers. He especially sang them to please my mother, who was and still is an admirer of that quartet, which was made up of Miguel Cancio, Eduardo “El Chino” Hernández, Leoncio “Kike” Morúa and Ignacio Elejalde, along with the almost ever-present accompaniment of Manuel Galbán’s electric guitar.

When that wasn’t the case, then we would use the record player to hear the voices of Los Zafiros themselves on our family’s treasured LP, which I still keep in my music library. That is how I first began to like the music of Los Zafiros. So, when I was asked to write about that group, it brought back lots of childhood memories that I thought I had forgotten.

I think that the article I do should begin with explaining that in the tradition of vocal quartets that Cuba has had for years, one of the groups that had the most impact on national audiences was Los Zafiros. I think that the article would have to mention that it is essential for anyone who loves the best all-time Cuban music to return over and over to many of the numerous songs performed by this quartet.

With respect to the repertory of Los Zafiros as such, I think that the OnCuba article should include some of the main ways that the quartet projected itself as a group. Along those lines, one of the things I would love to discuss with Miguel Cancio is how the weight of the group’s artistic personality was principally based on their excellent vocal, backed by a very functional electric guitar. This pushed the role of the text of their melodies into the background given the simplicity of their songs’ lyrics, which did not take away a bit from their eloquence. Here, the voices of the quartet’s members act as instruments that are not limited to simple accompaniment; instead, they take center stage.

I don’t know what you think, but one of the other things I would love to ask Miguel is about the history of the process of putting together songs that are deeply popular among Cuban music lovers, like “Herido de sombras,” or those two often-hummed calypsos, “Y sabes bien” and “Puchunguita ven,” performed in a way so that continuous vocalizations predominated, showcasing the tremendows abilities of the group’s members.

Well, my time’s up. My meeting here at the ANCI is about to begin. If my computer gets fixed, I will communicate directly with Cancio. For now, tell him again for me that I think the work of his former group has the merit of providing us with testimony to an era, because Los Zafiros was one of those few phenomenal music groups among us that not only transcend their time, but also are able to reconcile the plurality of generational and musical tastes among Cubans. And that is an extremely difficult feat, as scholars of our cultural dynamics know.

Big hug, Joaco.

P.S.: Tahimi, I think that I’ve told you at some point that for me, the hardest thing about working as a journalist is putting a headline on my articles. So, if you can think of something better, great, but for now and for planning the issue, identify my article with the following: Los Zafiros: Preserving our Musical Memory. Chao!

Interview with Miguel Cancio, founder of Los Zafiros

Editor’s Note: We did not want to publish an article about Los Zafiros without including the valuable comments of Miguel Cancio. Our intention is for our readers to learn more about the history of Los Zafiros, that special and spectacular quartet, and Miguel is the only founding member who can tell us that story. So, after several different attempts, we were able to do this telephone interview that Joaquín had prepared for Miguel. Telephone in hand to chat with one of Los Zafiros, I couldn’t help but hum a line from one of their famous songs: “Hello, hello, hello…Who’s calling? Who’s calling….?” 

Tahimi: Hi Miguel, great to talk to you. I’m going to ask you some questions that Joaquín Borges Triana prepared for you. Is that all right?

Miguel: Yes, of course, Tahimi, it will be my pleasure.

Tahimi: Which song do you think best represents the style of Los Zafiros?

Miguel: Our whole repertory is representative of the style and vocal timbre of Los Zafiros, which set us apart from other quartets, all of which had magnificent vocal qualities. But the first number we performed in making our debut on the primetime television program Música y estrellas [Music and stars], directed by Manuel Rifat and hosted by Eva Rodríguez, was “Y sabes bien,” by the late composer, our friend José Robles Díaz. Therefore, it became our representative number, because it was the one that won us the prolonged applause and exclamations of admiration from the audience that was in the Channel 4 studio at Masón and San Miguel streets. It was the number that opened the doors to fame for us, thanks to the people, who welcomed us forever after that debut, making us tremble and weep with emotion and happiness.

Tahimi: What were the best and worst moments for Los Zafiros?

Miguel: The best moment for Los Zafiros: our debut on television on the Música y Estrellas program.

Bad moments…many. But we had such so much heart that we were able to stand up with courage to any injustice that we would experience for any reason. Moreover, we enjoyed the love and respect of our audience; that was our best medicine for any type of pain, no matter how strong. Therefore, we only thought about the best moments, it really was not worth remembering the bad ones. With courage inside, human beings can withstand anything.

Tahimi: Lastly, Miguel, how would you like the quartet to be remembered in the future?

Miguel: I would like us to be remembered with the same affection, respect and admiration that we have always been given by those who knew and applauded us, and who opened up the doors of fame and their hearts to us. And to show us that same sympathy, admiration and respect, like the new generation is doing without having known us personally. Also, the way that those young men in the new Zafiros are doing; I admire them and I invite them to continue with the same enthusiasm, love, respect and admiration they have shown toward Ignacio, Kike, Eduardo, Oscarito, Galván and this humble servant and founder of the original Zafiros: four voices and a guitar, that was our motto.

Tahimi: Thank you, Miguel, for giving us your testimony. Take care, and I wish you the best for the new year.

Miguel: Thank you. Best of luck.

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