!Viva Los Zafiros!

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."

More than 800 people attend the 4:30 Saturday matinee of Zafiros at Havana's Cine Astral, a faded Art Deco movie palace with a grand balcony and illuminated bas-relief walls that depict mythical Greek figures. Moviegoers call out to each other across the aisles as they settle into the theater's patched velvet seats. Many of them have already seen the film more than once. One middle-aged man in a Che Guevara T-shirt pays his two pesos (about twenty cents) at the box office to see it for the third time. Never mind that this print of the film, dubbed from another copy rather than from the master negative, is blurred; never mind that the actors sound as if they are talking underwater. "The movie's pretty realistic -- maybe a little on the melodramatic side," he comments as he buys a slim white paper cone of peanuts. "But I keep coming back. The thing is, the Zafiros' music was so beautiful."

As depicted in the movie, Los Zafiros formed in 1962 in Cayo Hueso, a working-class Havana neighborhood. Miguel Cancio was performing as a clown for children in a public park at the time. Leoncio Morua Ruiz, Ignacio Elejalde Sanchez, and Eduardo Elio Hernandez -- the other Zafiros -- worked, respectively, as an office clerk, a dancer, and a judo instructor. All four were in their early twenties. Only Cancio had professional musical experience, having sung with bandleader Facundo Rivero in the Fifties. The name Los Zafiros was inspired by a sapphire ring Cancio wore.

The early Sixties, the postrevolution period between the mambo era and the onset of the idealistic nueva trova movement (politically tinged folk music), marked an end to what is generally called Cuban music's golden age. But despite the revolution, Havana's dynamic cabaret scene endured. "It was a time when Havana had a really vibrant nightlife -- the kind of atmosphere that we're starting to see again today," recalls Omar Vazquez, a Cuban music journalist and promoter who worked for a television variety show 35 years ago. "Benny More was still alive. The dance orchestras played nightly in the clubs."

While the big bands continued to be popular, Cuban musicians were experimenting with other formats, heavily influenced by American doo-wop and soul singers, trendy tropical beats such as samba and calypso, and the new sound of rock and roll's electric guitars. Foreign vocal groups like the Platters and Los Cinco Latinos from Argentina were all the rage. Cuban bands soaked up everything.

"There was an incredible strength in excellent vocal quartets in Cuba at the time," remembers Miguel Cancio, who introduces himself as "Mike" when he opens the door to his son's Miami Lakes home on a recent afternoon. Now a fit 58-year-old retiree, he walks with the macho swagger of a man used to having an audience's eyes on him, the elegant style of his days as a singing star still evident. He wears dark blue pants with matching suspenders, a light blue shirt, and a gold watch with a twilight-blue face. A sapphire shines from a ring on each pinkie. He absently turns one of them -- the same one he wore in 1962 -- as he recalls the best years of his life: "We had to come up with something different -- a different sound, a different tone, a different style."

Like the music of the Platters, the so-called Zafiristic style was based on harmony, with the voices of Miguel, Ignacio, Kike (Ruiz), and El Chino (Hernandez), as they came to be known to their fans, backed only by an electric guitar. Manuel Galvan, a lanky man with long sideburns who resembles Carl Perkins, became the group's accompanist in 1963, replacing Oscar Aguirre, who moved to the United States. Galvan's career continued with other musical groups after the demise of Los Zafiros in the Seventies, but now he comes out of retirement only for an occasional gig with friends, like the recent Women's Day concert in which he participated at Havana's Arab Cultural Center. This past month he was shocked and delighted when Cooder asked him to perform on two Zafiros songs for an album featuring septuagenarian sonero Ibrahim Ferrer. Back in the Sixties it had been Galvan's idea to speed up the tempo of the soulful ballads and Harry Belafonte-like calypsos that Los Zafiros performed in order to give them the swing of a rumba beat.  

"Cuba needed a group that would be something like the Platters but with Cuban music," points out Jorge Enrique Echevarria, the musical director for Los Nuevos Zafiros, which, like other revival bands, is a competent but pale imitation of the original. "Los Zafiros did rumba and conga, and when they sang ballads, they sang them really macho, strong -- very Cuban."

While the music itself was fresh, it was Ignacio's upper-register singing that established the group's trademark sound. "Ignacio practically had a woman's voice," recalls Galvan. "I could count the number of male singers in the world with a voice like that, and I'd probably have to cut off one finger."

Cancio complemented Ignacio's high notes with a wailing falsetto; El Chino had a macho tenor; Kike an expressive alto. The group embroidered on the romantic melodies of their numbers with collective scatting, whoops, whirs, and bird calls.

"Los Zafiros used their voices like instruments," explains Rene Banos, leader of Vocal Sampling, a popular young Cuban a cappella group that has been compared to the Sixties quartet. "They were a very, very important group because they came up with a totally new way of dealing with vocals in Cuban music."

From their first appearances, Los Zafiros conquered Cuban audiences. "They were a mass phenomenon," says Vazquez, who remembers the group's big breakthrough at a festival at the Hotel Habana Libre in 1962. Benny More was the headliner, but it was Los Zafiros that caused a sensation. "Then they were all over television and radio. They had the clubs and cabarets filled."

While their vocal stylings were innovative, it was Los Zafiros' dance moves that drove audiences crazy and made women swoon. Always dressed in identical custom-made suits, the vocalists were in perpetual motion. "What we were, precisely," notes Cancio, "was a group of dancers."

Confirms Galvan: "I kept the beat by watching their feet. They were that rhythmic."

In 1965 the quartet was contracted to join the Music Hall of Cuba, a traveling all-star show that included Orquesta Aragón, Afro-Cuban singer Celeste Mendoza, and Pello el Afrokan, creator of the Mozambique rhythm (a kind of conga-and-trombone-driven Cuban twist). The bands played the Olympia Theater in Paris, then toured the rest of Europe.

"Los Zafiros were definitely the big attraction," Vazquez recalls. And back home they were national heroes.

"Most of all they had charisma," explains Nuevos Zafiros vocalist Echevarria. "They were simple people who fit in anywhere. They were from the pueblo. In a word, they were popular."

As a little boy in oversize jeans does the conga up and down the aisle singing the Zafiros' hit "La Caminadora," the Cine Astral audience whistles and claps for the movie to start. Even when the lights finally go down, twenty minutes after the announced showtime, the theater's darkness is periodically pierced by the bouncing beam of an usher's flashlight as he escorts late arrivals, who continue to enter throughout the movie's hour-and-45-minute running time.

Zafiros opens with a languorous pan of present-day Havana set to the Zafiros singing "Hermosa Habana," a plaintive ballad by Cuban composer Rolando Vergara. There are fourteen musical numbers in all, including an extravaganza at the Tropicana, plus a street dance-party sequence reminiscent of both the students' blowout in Fame and the rooftop "America" dance in West Side Story. While the film's dramatic scenes sometimes lapse into the stilted histrionics of a telenovela, the four stage-trained actors who play the quartet -- Luis Alberto Garcia, Sirio Soto, Barbaro Marin, and Nestor Jimenez -- are excellent performers, lip-synching masterfully to the original songs and re-creating the group's deft dance moves. When a fictional scene at a television station is intercut with old footage of an actual TV appearance by Los Zafiros, it's hard to tell the difference.

The young people in the audience seem to have learned the words to every song and they sing out loud. Adults mouth the words or hum along, nodding their heads to the rhythm. They beat the armrests of their seats and stomp their feet.

"People are dying to relive those times," says Echevarria. "They're tired of the aggressive stuff you hear in the clubs now. They want to go back to the golden age of Cuban music."

It's not only the music they are anxious to recapture. The film takes people back to the early Sixties, a time Miguel Cancio remembers as "optimistic and adventurous." And comfortable. In the movie the band members' girlfriends wear the latest American fashions, houses are freshly painted, and the corner bar is well stocked.  

But while the film faithfully reflects the clothes and music of the era, some important details are absent: no mention of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, or the U.S. trade embargo. And there is scant evidence of the drastic changes that Cuban society was undergoing in the early days of Castro's reign.

"The film is apolitical," Hugo Cancio contends. "I decided to leave political conflict out of it. I didn't want to cause any friction between the Cuban authorities and the exile community."

Director Manuel Herrera points out that there are some subtle references to the changing times. For example, guitarist Aguirre suddenly leaves for the United States. In another scene, early in the film, the band members sit down to a sumptuous dinner, exclaiming over its extravagance "for the times we're living in." These are small points. What the film offers audiences is sheer entertainment.

"It's a story that people can enjoy, told in an enjoyable way," says Herrera, who wrote the final version of the script. His past work has included a docudrama about the Bay of Pigs, light comedy, numerous documentaries, and television thrillers. He describes Zafiros as "part comedy, part melodrama."

As an escapist nostalgia vehicle that conforms to the American musical genre, the movie is definitely a sharp contrast to the Soviet social realism offered Cuban filmgoers in the early days of the revolution. (American films are now shown regularly in Havana theaters.) Then again, the Cancio-Herrera project does not reflect trends in more recent Cuban cinema, notably Fresa y Chocolate and Guantanamera, sophisticated dark comedies by the late Tomas Gutierrez Alea that depict contemporary Cuba's sometimes surreal circumstances. (In a February speech, Castro criticized Guantanamera for showing Cuba in a bad light. He reportedly later softened his comments, at a meeting of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists.)

Not everyone has found the Zafiros movie particularly compelling. One critic, in an article titled "Operation Nostalgia" published in the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelede, remarked on the film's superficiality, citing its tendency to celebrate the banal. Others have had a stronger negative reaction. Nestor Mili, a musician and the editor of the Cuban music magazine Tropicana Internacional, insists that the film is simply a lie. He claims that it was his father, the composer and guitarist Nestor Mili, Sr., who created Los Zafiros, not Miguel Cancio.

Mili explains that his father had the idea for a vocal quartet that would perform with only guitar accompaniment. Mili Sr. found the band members and brought them together to rehearse in his house in Cayo Hueso, where the younger Mili still lives. The composer was nearly 60 at the time and in ill health, so he hired Aguirre as guitarist and stayed behind the scenes as musical director.

Cancio admits that the group came together at Mili's house, which was near his own. But he asserts that it was he who found the band members and developed the concept. He adds that he wanted to include Mili's character in the movie, but that Mili Jr., angered by Cancio's version of events, requested that his father be kept out of it. Mili Jr. plans to devote an upcoming issue of Tropicana to documenting what he terms the "true" story of Los Zafiros.

"Over there, Miguelito's son had the resources so that he could make a movie and tell the story from his point of view," says Mili Jr. "But here in Cuba I have my magazine and I'm going to tell it like it is."

Galvan agrees that the movie takes some liberties: "I like the film, and I think what Hugo did is very valuable. But it maybe focuses a little too much on his family." Galvan was disappointed that his character in the film did not reflect his actual importance as the band's musical director. "I think there's room to make a whole other movie about Los Zafiros," he notes, "one in which I figure more prominently."

Herrera dismisses any nitpicking about the movie's version of events. "I'm not documenting history -- I'll leave that to the historians," he fumes. "I'm telling a story. It's not a documentary, it's a work of fiction." He suggests that the film's critics look at the big picture, that they understand that Zafiros is a film about Cuba: "In this movie I'm talking about our essence as Cuban artists, with our characteristics and our identity."

The script features playful Cuban slang, and Cancio's practice of Santeria rituals figures in several scenes. "I think the key to the movie is that it's very Cuban," notes Herrera. "And like all Cuban works of art, it's very nationalistic and very universal at the same time."  

For the director, the film's ability to translate successfully to foreign audiences -- particularly the one in Miami -- is important. "There were two things that I think were attractive for the whole crew in making this movie," he says. "One was to tell the story of Los Zafiros, which was a musical group that really touched my generation. And the second was the possibility to address two different audiences -- those on both sides of the Florida Straits. And that challenge was one of the most interesting things for us in making the film.

"I really hope we have a positive reaction in Miami," he adds. "I'd like this film to open a path to better understanding -- and for everyone to have a good time."

Miguel Cancio sits on a leather sofa in his son's living room watching Zafiros on a wide-screen TV. It's the scene in which he gets married.

"Sometimes I get too emotional when I watch and I have to turn it off," he admits. "Other times I can watch it more objectively and it doesn't affect me so much. But it always has an impact. It's like going back in time. This whole thing has been a surprise. Even if I had drunk a whole bottle of rum, I never would have dreamed I'd be watching a movie about Los Zafiros."

The film tracks the group members from their early days of hanging out in a neighborhood bar -- Cancio has a cameo as the bartender -- to the height of their fame, when they appeared on radio and television and in concert. As the film progresses, rifts develop among the four singers, creating dramatic tension.

"We fought like brothers," recalls Cancio, who is portrayed as the most serious-minded of the quartet. (His demeanor earned him the nickname Vinagrecito -- Little Vinegar.) "We didn't have the same blood but we were like brothers. I think we were all in love with each other."

Awhile later, as the scene in which the group performs at the Olympia unfolds, he turns away from the TV and wipes tears from his eyes.

Hugo, sitting on an adjoining loveseat, starts to laugh and says, "This is my favorite part." He is on-screen, playing a Motown Records exec (the label is referred to as Moretown in the film to avoid any legal problems) who approaches the group backstage at the Olympia to offer them a recording contract and an engagement at Miami's Fontainebleau Hotel. The group declines.

"I think we were afraid it was a trick," the older Cancio says, going on to explain that given the strained relations between the United States and Cuba, the group suspected the record mogul might actually be from the CIA. "We were totally apolitical," adds Cancio with a shrug. "We didn't know about anything but music."

The film boasts an upbeat Hollywood-style ending, the group triumphantly returning to Cuba. But in real life the quartet was beginning its decline. Los Zafiros never traveled abroad again, for reasons that are still not clear to Cancio. "They [cultural officials in charge of booking tours abroad] just didn't call us any more, and within the system we were not in a position to get contracts for ourselves," he remembers. "Our career became a vicious circle -- the circuit of clubs, cabarets, and television. We didn't have any stimulation, and that generated internal problems."

Difficulties among the band members were exacerbated by the government's socialization of the music industry. "We were evaluated as an A1 band, the maximum, but the maximum salary was 500 pesos a month," recalls Cancio. "We used to make that much in two days. Suddenly we had to do television, cabarets, carnivals, everything, all for that same salary."

The group went from burning money to struggling to pay their tailor. Communism cramped their lifestyles, but not enough to slow down their drinking. "Liquor was definitely a determining factor in the decline of Los Zafiros," allows Cancio, who, while not as big a partier as the other three, still enjoyed his rum. Amid rumors of alcoholic benders, drug binges, womanizing, and violent episodes, Los Zafiros continued to perform halfheartedly until the mid-Seventies. First Galvan departed, then Cancio. By 1978 Los Zafiros were finished. Ignacio and Kike died shortly thereafter. El Chino lived until 1995, a broken alcoholic who died at 52.

In 1992 Salvadoran film- and videomaker Jorge Dalton discovered El Chino living destitute in Old Havana. He asked the singer to recount his story. Intercutting the interview with footage of the group's old performances, Dalton put together an engaging half-hour documentary on Los Zafiros, a poignant tale of fame gone wrong. The video was shown at Miami-Dade Community College in 1994. Miguel Cancio could not bear to go.  

One year later Hugo Cancio returned to Cuba for the first time since 1980. He and other Cuban exiles were invited by the government to attend a conference on "The Nation and Its Emigration." At a reception attended by Castro, Cancio spoke with Enrique Roman, president of the Cuban Radio and Television Institute. Roman asked after his father and remarked on Dalton's documentary. Cancio confessed he hadn't seen it. He found a copy of it in his hotel room the next day.

"I liked it but I thought it was very depressing," says the younger Cancio. "It showed the sad part of Los Zafiros' life. I decided to do a documentary that showed the other side of the coin."

When he got back to Miami, Hugo told his father of his plans. Miguel Cancio didn't speak to his son for a month.

After he left Los Zafiros, Cancio went out on his own as a solo artist. His career was modest, but he was satisfied. Hugo was not. A promising student who planned to become a doctor, he was thrown out of Havana's prestigious Lenin School after one of his classmates tape-recorded him telling a joke about Castro. He knew he had no future in Cuba. When he heard that criminals and homosexuals were being allowed to leave the country, he went to Cuban officials and told them he was gay. They let him go, but because he was a minor, his father had to sign for his release.

Hugo Cancio, his mother (who had separated from his father -- Miguel Cancio has since remarried), and his sister came to Miami Beach and started a new life in a $169-a-month efficiency on Collins Avenue. Hugo went to Miami Beach High and got a job as a busboy.

Meanwhile, according to Miguel Cancio, back in Havana the government, despite its earlier position, punished him for allowing his son to leave the island. He lost his salary and was stripped of his official status as a musician. He was eventually given a job sweeping streets.

"He wrote me a letter saying that he was the only street sweeper in Havana who wore a suit," recalls his son. One day he was cleaning outside the state recording company's studio in Old Havana when he heard a Los Zafiros song blaring from inside. Explains Hugo, "He never knew if they were honoring him or mocking him."

Miguel Cancio does not want to talk about that period. When he came to Miami, he wanted to forget all about Cuba and his life as a member of Los Zafiros. "I was not a fan of Hugo making a movie in Cuba," he says. Hugo persisted, however, and his father finally came around. "After a while I got excited about it. It was like being reborn."

But Hugo faced bigger problems than winning his father's approval for the film. "I knew it was a difficult task because I was living in the United States, my father was a political refugee, and here I was going back to Cuba and asking to do a film there," he explains.

But he was determined to film on the island. Working with Cuban television's Roman, he approached government officials. They seemed receptive. "We thought the idea was interesting," notes the Foreign Ministry's Cabanas. "The potential for other people to do similar projects is high, and our doors are open to those possibilities."

It took Cancio two years to work out the details and figure out how to make the film without violating the embargo. His father and Cuban scriptwriter Raul Macias worked up a first draft of the screenplay. The original idea for a documentary gradually became a docudrama, then a short film, and finally a feature film.

Cancio was allowed to make his film independently in Havana, working with personnel from Cuban television and the Cuban Film Institute. "There was 150 percent cooperation," he says. According to both Cabanas and Cancio, the filmmakers were not even required to pay the Cuban government location fees or taxes.

The film's main location was a private home in Cayo Hueso, not far from where Miguel once lived; it was spruced up with paint to hide three decades' worth of deterioration. Director Herrera relates that people willingly opened their doors to the crew once they learned the movie was about Los Zafiros. Musicians who knew the group asked to do cameos. Well-known actors took bit parts for free. "This was a film made with more enthusiasm than resources," Herrera beams.  

Cancio donated one print of the film to Cuban television and another to the film institute. Zafiros: Locura Azul was screened at the recent Cartagena International Film Festival in Colombia; Luis Alberto Garcia, who plays Miguel Cancio, won the award for best actor. The movie is slated to be shown at the Chicago Latino Film Festival later this month. Cancio notes that he's received inquiries from several distributors about handling the movie's commercial release in this country, and he hopes to clinch a deal soon.

As for Miguel Cancio, he's already gotten his payback. "I thank God for allowing me to have this experience," he reflects. "The quartet's success arrived so fast that we didn't have time to realize the magnitude of what we had done. Who knows, maybe when I die we'll all meet up in Heaven and form Los Zafiros all over again.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >