!Viva Los Zafiros!

Miami businessman Hugo Cancio's musical saga of Cuba's greatest vocal group has taken the island by storm and is now headed here

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, a lively crowd of senior citizens, young couples, lone men, flirting teenagers, and mothers shepherding groups of children in immaculate party clothes forms a meandering line that stretches around the corner of a busy intersection in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of central Havana. For more than three months, people here have been queuing up daily to see the film Zafiros: Locura Azul, the story of the Sixties vocal group Los Zafiros (the Sapphires), four handsome, harmonizing singers who were Cuba's answer to the Platters. At its premiere at this past December's Havana International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award, the movie had the audience singing and dancing in their seats.

They're still singing and dancing. And the film has spawned a revival of the catchy, good-time music of Los Zafiros, whose rapid ascent to fame was followed by a speedy decline, partly owing to changing times wrought by the revolution, but mostly engendered by the group members' hard-drinking ways. Two of the four singers were dead before they hit 40. Only one survives today, and he lives in Miami. But snatches of Los Zafiros songs, rarely heard in Cuba over the past two decades, now flow from Havana's bodegas and bars.

The film has had a dramatic impact. For example, Los Nuevos Zafiros, a tribute group formed before the movie was made, have seen the size of their concert audiences multiply since the release of the film. They now hope to book a tour abroad. And American guitarist Ry Cooder was in Havana last month to produce an album with Cuban musicians (a followup to the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club) that is scheduled to include two of the quartet's old hits.

While the Zafiros movie has an undeniable nostalgic appeal for older Cubans, schoolchildren -- similar to the mini-Travoltas spawned by the 1978 release of the film Grease in this country -- have been hardest hit by Zafiromania. Los Zafiritos, a group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys, have traded in their baggy jeans and sneakers for neat suits and ties like the ones worn by their idols. The young performers have appeared on Cuban television lip-synching to Los Zafiros ballads and imitating their finger-popping, fast-stepping rumba moves; in March they put on a show in the basement of the Cine Payret, site of the movie's premiere, where they dipped and turned with the same enthusiasm as the real Zafiros did at Havana's Tropicana nightclub back in their glory days.

"We do this to remember Los Zafiros," explains one of the boys, who claims to have seen the movie 27 times. "For a while they were forgotten. But now Los Zafiros are the fever in Cuba."

Zafiros: Locura Azul is only the second Cuban musical to achieve widespread popularity on the island in recent times (after 1989's La Bella del Alhambra), somewhat odd in a nation teeming with incredible music. More unusual is the fact that the man behind it is a Cuban American -- Miami's Hugo Miguel Cancio. When he was fifteen years old, Cancio emigrated here in the 1980 Mariel boatlift after being expelled from school in Havana for making a joke about Fidel Castro's policies. Now 33, he has since made peace with the Cuban government and owns a travel agency that organizes trips to Cuba.

Cancio proudly calls Zafiros: Locura Azul (Zafiros: Blue Madness) the first Cuban-American feature-film co-production since before the revolution. It is -- almost. Legally, the U.S. trade embargo prohibits Americans from financially backing a film made in Cuba, but not from distributing one. Cancio skirted the restrictions by raising money for the film from non-American investors, then buying back the distribution rights from them once the movie was completed -- four and a half months and about $800,000 later. The film's director Manuel Herrera, the actors, and the crew are Cuban nationals.

"The movie is a test case in this process that we call normalization of relations with the emigrant community," says Jose Cabanas, a Cuban consular official who oversees affairs concerning Cubans residing abroad for the Foreign Ministry in Havana. "It's proof that Cuban culture is one culture only."

Cancio plans to screen Zafiros in Miami on April 16 at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, with the film's actors and director in attendance. (To his irritation, pirated videocassette copies have already been shown at private gatherings here.) "I wanted to create something that both the Cubans on the island and the exile community could enjoy," notes Cancio. "I think this film has built bridges. It was made for Cuban people everywhere."

Originally, Cancio had a more personal motive for making the movie: He is the son of Los Zafiros' only surviving original member -- Miguel Cancio, who came to Miami in 1993 as a political refugee. The younger Cancio set out to make a small film as a tribute to his father. He confesses he didn't anticipate he'd have a hit on his hands, although, he adds, "I expected a certain part of the generation of Los Zafiros to like the film."

A compact, casually dressed man with mahogany skin, a watchful eye, and an easy smile, Cancio is an outspoken opponent of the embargo. After a meal at Larios, the Miami Beach restaurant owned by Emilio and Gloria Estefan, he conspicuously removes a Cuban-made cigar from his jacket pocket. "What I never expected," he adds, lighting up, "was the phenomenon that it's caused in Havana."

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