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Cuban Music Lesson: Los Zafiros

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

It’s hard for us today to understand the close relationship that once existed between Cuba and the U.S. After a 50 year Cold War pissing contest between our two governments, it feels as if we never got along. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time when Cuba and the U.S. had a long standing bromance. The two countries had a high degree of cross-cultural pollination. Los Zafiros is a good example. Their sound was a mix of late 50’s American doo-wop and Cuban rhythms, creating a tasty musical hybrid.

Los Zafiros were a vocal group that formed in Cayo Hueso, a poor neighborhood in Havana. The group included Leoncio “Kiké” Morúa, Manuel Galban, Miguel “Miguelito” Cancio, Ignacio Elejalde, Eduardo “El Chino” Elio Hernández, and Néstor Milí Bustillo. Galban and Bustillo created Los Zafiros’ signature sound by infusing popular American vocal based song stylings with Afro-Cuban beats. It was as if The Platters and Benny Moré got drunk, checked into a hotel room, and made a sweet sounding baby. They were an instant hit, recording hit songs like Bossa Cubana, La Noche Azul, and Y Sabes Bien. Los Zafiros toured all over the world, once even opening up for the Beatles. George Harrison asked to look inside Ignacio’s throat to find the origin of his amazing falsetto. Apparently, George was an ear, nose, and throat expert as well as a guitar player.

Los Zafiros started to come apart in the early 70’s. In spite of their squeaky clean image, the boys liked to party. Like, a lot. Kiké and El Chino both literally drank themselves to death. Ignacio died of a brain hemorrhage at only 37, silencing forever one of the greatest voices in Cuban history. Manuel Galban later joined the Buena Vista Social Club, finding success with the multi-platinum band of old fogies. Los Zafiros were largely forgotten in the U.S. until a few years ago when their albums were re-released. Their music speaks to a more innocent time in Cuban and American history. Before beards and nukes ruined the party.

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