Thursday, August 30, 2007

Los Zafiros

Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time
Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano
Shout! Factory

To understate matters, 1962 was an interesting year in Cuba to form a vocal quintet heavily influenced by American doo-wop. However, that is exactly what Los Zafiros (The Sapphires) did, becoming tremendously popular (both in Cuba and on world tours) for nearly two decades, fusing vocal harmonies with bossa, rumba, and conga rhythms. The two living members of Los Zafiros reunite for music and reminiscences in the documentary Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time (trailer here).

Miguel Cancio, an original founding member, currently lives in Florida, but was allowed to return to Cuba with filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano’s crew. Having immigrated to America, leaving behind friends and family, Cancio’s story is wrapped up in themes of exile, belonging, and patriotism. In an early interview Cancio says:

“I adore my country because he who doesn’t love his country, loves no one. I feel I am a good Cuban, but this is my second country.”

His surviving colleague is Manuel Galbán, whose long career in Cuban music started as Los Zafiros’ guitarist, and included several groups after the quintet’s demise, including an association with the Buena Vista Social Club. As Paquito D’Rivera explains in his autobiography, international touring is the goal of every professional Cuban musician, so it is with understandable pride that Galbán states: “I’ve been on tour 93 times and as long as I’m alive, I want to keep representing my country’s culture.”

There is a political subtext to Zafiros that remains largely unspoken throughout the film. It appears that Cancio opted for freedom in the U.S., while Galbán has come to terms with the Castro regime. Yet they greet each other as brothers, laughing and performing together with joy during their reunion.

There are some dramatic scenes in the film, as when Cancio visits with the brother of a late band-mate. There are many spirited performances as well. The original Zafiros remained so popular they actually spawned a new, younger version, Los Nuevos Zafiros, who join with Cancio and Galbán for a performance of “Ofelia,” one of the film’s highlights, enjoyed by a street audience, including the composer, Guillermo Belén Pacheco.

The music of Los Zafiros is actually a very satisfying blend of American style doo-wop and Latin rhythms. The extra section includes four entire performances that emphasize their Cuban sabor, including “Rumba Como Quiera” and “Congo Len.” Also included in the generous extras are deleted scenes, including the revelation of Los Zafiros’ Stuart Sutcliffe (the film often suggests they were the Cuban equivalent of the Beatles), Oscar Aguirre, their first guitarist who parted company with the group prior to their enormous success.

Los Zafiros definitely aims for a Buena Vista appeal, and it is not an inappropriate comparison. Despite the feeling one gets when watching Zafiros that so much is going unsaid, their music is distinctive and quite infectious, and ultimately the music is what their story is all about.