“his own music is an exotic hybrid in and of itself: as the guitarist for the legendary 1960s Cuban doo-wop and beat band Los Zafiros, Galban invented a singular style, rooted in Cuban music”. Dusted Magazine
Manuel Galbán (January 14, 1931 – July 7, 2011) as Manuel Hilario Galbán Torralbas, he was a Grammy-winning Cuban guitarist, pianist and arranger, most notable for his work with Los Zafiros, Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club. One of two surviving members of Los Zafiros, he died on July 7, 2011 of cardiac arrest at his home in Havana, Cuba.
Manuel Galbán was born on January 14, 1931 and grew up in the small fishing town of Gibara in the Holguín Province of eastern Cuba. After playing guitar and tres in various local youth groups, he got his first professional gig at the age of 14 playing guitar with the Orchestra Villa Blanca. In 1956 he moved to Havana, where he spent seven years playing in bars and clubs and making frequent appearances on radio.
In 1963 he joined the legendary vocal group Los Zafiros, after a mutual friend had recommended him to them. His playing proved to be a such hit with Los Zafiros that he was told by singer Miguel Cancio "Galbán, from now on you're working with us; you're exactly what we're looking for". Galbán was such an essential ingredient to the sound of Los Zafiros that the distinguished Cuban pianist Peruchin once said "to replace Galbán you would need two guitarists". He left the group in 1972 after working hard for years to allay the personal problems that plagued its various members.
Thereafter he spent three years with Cuba's national musical ensemble, Dirección Nacional de Música, and then a further 23 years with the Grupo Batey as a guitarist, vocalist and pianist, touring extensively across four continents.
In 1998 he joined the traditional Cuban group Vieja Trova Santiaguera with whom he toured and released two highly acclaimed albums. He also he appeared in the Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club, filmed with Ry Cooder during the sessions for the debut solo album by Ibrahim Ferrer. Later he recorded with Ferrer and Buena Vista Social Club bassist Cachaíto Lopez, leading to his present engagement as the featured guitarist with the touring ensemble named after the film.
In 2001 he recorded Mambo Sinuendo with Ry Cooder which won the 2003 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Says Cooder of the making of the album "Galbán and I felt that there was a sound that had not been explored, a Cuban electric-guitar band that could re-interpret the atmosphere of the 1950s with beauty, agility, and simplicity. We decided on two electrics, two drum sets, congas and bass: a sexteto that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes. This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny; what more could you ask?" "When we first heard about it on the phone, we thought it was a joke," Gutierrez remembers. "But the person said, 'Yes, really.' When it was announced on 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!'"
"I practice a lot," Galban says. "Hey, listen to me. It's hard. To play in a cabaret accompanying the rumba on rhythm guitar is really hard. I'm the metronome."
Betto Arcos: Talk about some of the artists you brought on for this recording as well as some of the people that you've really appreciated like Los Zafiros, Manual Galbán and Omara Portuondo. Talk about this incredible song they did together.
Ry Cooder: Los Zafiros was not typically Cuban, it wasn’t typically anything. They were just a bunch of bad boys from the Cayo Hueso neighborhood – low-riders we would have known them as – vatos locos, and rough characters. So they sing in this kind of low-rider-of-the-times style, which is an American East Coast R&B mixed with Cuban. It’s incredible. You would want something like this to exist.
Ry Cooder: I had always imagined that there might be such a thing. I had never known if it did exist. You could hear it happening in the Spanish Harlem music from New York, and you’d think, I bet somebody has done this. I bet somehow there is some Cuban stuff that has this groove in it, and these voices, the doo-wop harmonies. Of course, it turned out that they had done it. But they had all died.
There was a documentary floating around with the one remaining musician before he died -- Chino, the one with the beautiful lead voice, not the high one but the middle -- telling about the old times. In this documentary there’s this black-and-white footage of a guitar player doing this twangy stuff and I thought, “My God! The Duane Eddy of Cuba.” It’s fun -- twanging, playing the bass strings and the electric guitar. It’s really great.
Ry Cooder: Nick Gold was there on some trip and simply asked whatever happened to Manuel Galbán, the guitar player. He was told, “He lives over there, down that street.” So Nick goes down and he’s sitting there playing the guitar but he didn’t have an amp anymore. His guitar was a Fender Telecaster and he was a little bit nervous and uncertain. He didn’t know if he could still do it.
So we brought him in because we thought we could do a couple of these Zafiros tunes. It’s not stylistically where he’s at necessarily, but it would be fantastic to try this because they’re great songs – “La Ultima Cita” and the other one “Herido de Sombras”, which is an incredible, beautiful song. So Galbán comes in and lays it all out for everybody because he was Zafiros arranger. We had him and Gema Cuatro, the girl quartet, sing the vocal parts because we didn’t have Zafiros anymore. That was quite a thrill.
Ry Cooder: After we did the first tune, I just thought, Well this is just pure heaven! Now we’re moving into this hidden element of music from the ‘50s in Cuba that is a little less about the typical kind of popular music or the tourist music or the nightclub music. This is something in which I’m more interested personally, the sub-forms that exist that contain something extra, something strange and unexpected. This is Galbán personified. He takes these ripping solos and I have never heard a Telecaster sound like that. He’s a fantastic guy and very much alive, ready to do whatever it takes.
At some point I said, “Just tell me where you got some of this from. What were you listening to?” It was Duane Eddy, which is sensational. Absolutely sensational. I’ve played with Duane and I know him.
Ry Cooder: If you look at the line of the surf guitar, the twanging guitar and the electric trace guitar such as played by Arsenio and Niño Rivera, there is some kind of weird, post-bop -- watered-down bee-bop, popularized bee-bop -- cocktail vibe in that music. Of course, we would all give body parts to hear the Zafiros again. Fortunately, they recorded and it’s available. People who haven’t heard that record certainly should. It’s very heavenly, very beautiful.
Galbán's distinctive electric guitar sound makes liberal use of reverb, tremolo, diminished arpeggio runs and palm mutes. Using a Fender Telecaster with heavy gauge strings, he references the tone of Duane Eddy and the early surf guitarists whilst playing the melodic runs and chordal patterns associated with traditional Cuban music. He has been pictured using Fender Twin, Roland JC120 and Fender Bassman amps, as well as a Dunlop TS-1 stereo tremolo pedal.
Manuel Galbán, pride of Cuban music, star of the Buena Vista Social Club
MANUEL Hilario Galbán Torralbas, the famous guitarist, composer and ex- director of Los Zafiros, celebrated his 80th birthday this January 14. He is one of the great stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, with a musical life dating back more than 60 years, and 170 musical tours under his belt. He remains a member of the group Los Cuatro Fabulosos.
He has won the City of Gibara Shield, the Cuban Culture Distinction, the Adolfo Guzmán Distinction, the Raúl Gómez García Medal, La Gitana Tropical Prize, and the only one missing is the National Music Prize.
He has a collection of guitars in his home in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, including the one he played with Los Zafiros and a Fender given to him by Ry Cooder. There are photos of him with stars of music and film.
Galbán, let’s recall your first musical steps in Gibara.
Gibara is a fishing town where many boats arrive from Nassau. In our home my whole family played music from the oral tradition, I would improvise with two of my brothers, in serenades and play thetres in amateur groups. I also played percussion which has served me well in my work as an accompanist for singers. II came into the world with music within me and learned many instruments on my own; I play piano for love.
When did you begin to play professionally?
In July of 1944, I was playing in dance halls with the Orquesta Villa Blanca, I mastered the guitar, the trap drums and when necessary I played piano. In those days I admired the music of Orquesta Avilés, the oldest in Cuba.
When did you arrive in Havana?
In 1956. I arrived in the big city with some crumpled bills in my pocket, a change of clothes and a toothbrush; I began to try my luck, it was the great moment of Cuban music, the mambo was the rage. I tuned pianos, I’m a carpenter, I still have my tools. I recorded some commercial jingles, sometimes I played in the streets, passed the hat, to earn some money. I began with a trio, we went to jam sessions, serenades, we were doing a show in the Club 6 Panamerica; for a time I was with the Conjunto Casablanca, we performed at Hernando’s Hideaway Club. I accompanied the singers Lino Borges, Caridad Hierrezuelo and Evelio Rodríguez.
How did you come to Los Zafiros?
Three months after the group’s debut, December 1962; in other words in March 1963. Reinaldo Hierrezuelo asked me to stand in for the previous guitarist. Los Zafiros were empiric singers, they needed a musician to accompany them, to arrange the tunes and play guitar, piano. It was difficult to accompany them without clashing with their harmony, they were an atypical quartet, different, very special.
How were Los Zafiros musically?
Very musical, they had natural talent, exceptional – remember they were of mixed race, street guys – they moved to the rhythm of theclave, they were spectacular, unique.
Was Los Zafiros’ only foreign tour the test of fire?
In 1965 we went with the Music Hall de Cuba to Paris and continued on in some Eastern European countries. There we were, just a guitar and four voices, beginning to enjoy the demanding audience of the great French theater, the Paris Olympia, we were the most applauded in the broad and prestigious line up which included stars like Orquesta Aragón, Los Papines, Elena Burke. In Moscow they used to touch Ignacio Elejalde’s throat to see what he had inside of his privileged throat.
Was it the end of the world after Los Zafiros?
I stopped playing with Los Zafiros toward the end of 1972, the break up was stormy and sad, as happens with great loves; but the show has to go on. Another phase began, in 1973 I founded the group Batey, with a more traditional repertoire and the project took off, we did 87 tours. During that same period Chucho Valdés’ Los Irakere appeared on the scene.
By the end of the 20th century La Vieja Trova Santiaguera had arrived…
In January 1998, right in the middle of the Cuban salsa boom, that was the rebirth of the old guard of Cuban trova. I played Spanish guitar with them, I also helped with the voice arrangements. We recorded two albums: La manigua and Mambo sinuendo, with Ry Cooder.
How did you come to the Buena Vista Social Club?
My arrival in Buena Vista Social Club is owed to Ry Cooder’s surprise at the way I play guitar, very similar to the legendary guitarist Duane Eddy. So Ry said, "Find Galbán," he called me the "guitar wizard," gave me a Fender guitar and asked me to do a recording with him.
What work did you do with Ry Cooder?
We recorded Mambo sinuendo, which won the 2003 Latin Grammy for Best Tropical Contemporary Album. We improvised in the recording sessions without having rehearsed, and had stars like Orlando López "Cachao". It was an album of diverse tones, very varied and rich, hence its success.
Ibrahim Ferrer and a band featuring Manuel 'Guajiro' Mirabal, Jesus Aguaje Ramos, Orlando 'Cachaito' Lopez, Roberto Fonseca and Manuel Galban perform 'Si te contara' from his third and last album 'Mi Sueno'.
What is your technical approach to playing the guitar?
I combine fast passages with arpeggios, while making appropriate use of the bass strings, in that way I give the sensation that more than one musician is playing. I set about synchronizing and fading the strings with the other hand, a trick that I learned backing Kike’s singing in Los Zafiros.
Is that why the great pianist Peruchín said that in order to replace Galbán in Los Zafiros you’d have to put in two guitarists?
Exactly, I was doing the work of two guitars, remember that we had to economize on instruments because of difficulties finding pianos and other instruments in nightclubs in the decade of the 60s.
What compositions have you written?
Three compositions recorded with Los Zafiros: "Oye Nicolás," "Hoy brilla el sol", and "Por muy lejos". With La Vieja Trova Santiaguera: "Se paró la moto", "De contén a contén" (dedicated to street sweepers). Other titles: "Tierno amanecer", "Baila mi guaguancó" and "Tambó, tambó".
What’s going to happen with Manuel Galbán in 2011?
In March of 2011, there’s the premiere of a film dedicated to one of my albums, debuting in New York’s Carnegie Hall. It’s a CD with seven great musical stars participating, among them Omara Portuondo representing Cuba. My daughter Magda Galbán and her husband Juan Antonio Leyva are doing the musical production. The executive producer is Daniel Florestano of the Montuno company which manages Buena Vista Social Club.
Galbán, has good luck followed you?