Bárbaro Marín, Néstor Jiménez, Luis Alberto García and Sirio Soto are Los Zafiros of the Cuban film. Four very young actors seated at a bar talk about the group being formed and about what to name it. Thinking about precious stones the name zafiro (sapphire) comes up and thus the quartet was baptized. It is Zafiros, locura azul, in 1997.
The film was premiered that year at the 19th Havana International New Latin American Film Festival and won the popularity prize. It is still today one of the greatest box office hits of Cuban cinema.
“It was a very expected film because Los Zafiros have left a very great imprint in popular memory; in the 1960s they had been one of the great landmarks of Cuban music. When Manuel Herrera assumed the film he revived for many the myth of Los Zafiros, but he also replaced another, because the actors who gave life to the quartet went on to also form part of a legend,” journalist and critic Pedro de la Hoz explains.
Zafiros, locura azul is celebrating its 20 years and a part of the film’s team met this Monday in the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) to pay tribute to the work. Néstor Jiménez, El Chino of the group in the film by Manuel Herrera, told there about the importance of that character, for he is still recognized in the street:
“At times one doesn’t have the concept or the dimension of what one does, but with Los Zafiros something special happened. Not very frequently can I speak of a project carried out with so much love and that in the end left that sensation that we did something good, like a legacy. Art, if it does not move, has no sense and Zafiros moved. Zafiros transcends, it remains, it is there.”
The Cuban Platters emerged in 1961 in the barrio of Cayo Hueso, inspired by many of those famous vocalists from the 1950s. Accompanied by a guitarist, the vocal quartet rapidly became a sweeping phenomenon of Cuban music. Everything they recorded soon became a hit, no matter if it was a bossa nova, a calypso or a bolero.
“Directing Zafiros…for me was a veritable honor, because I used to listen to a lot of U.S. music in those programs they put on the radio in Santa Clara and when we separated from the United States there was a void that was filled later with Los Zarifos in a very genuine way,” says filmmaker Manuel Herrera.
“The year 1997,” he adds, “was a very difficult period for the country. There was great existential anguish and I thought that a film that people would enjoy and could mitigate the tensions was necessary. We made it with this purpose. It has been said that the film makes concessions to marketing, but I don’t care very much about that. I was ready to make it because I was seeking that my contemporaries have a moment to relax and I believed that was also my mission as an artist.”
Speaking of the context in which the film was made, Herrera thanked the contribution of the film’s producer, Hugo Cancio, according to his words “the principal promoter of the film, a person who wanted to make it under very difficult conditions. At that time it was very complicated to sustain a dialogue between the two countries, but Hugo and his team knew how to get around all the obstacles. I also thank him for the freedom he gave me to make it.”
The music and the choreography are two primordial aspects of a film of this type, which is why Manuel highlights in this sense the work of Magda Rosa Galbán and Juan Antonio Leyva, present in the tribute for the two decade of Zafiros, locura azul, whose script was by Raúl Macías and Miguel Cancio (member of the vocal group), photography by Raúl Rodríguez and production by Manuel Iglesias.
“I had to make major changes because the film was conceived as a vignette of musical numbers and we had to reformulate all that to build a story. I became aware then that a great injustice had been made with Los Zafiros: they were no longer listened to, so I decided to recover them for our people and I believe we achieved it. They are there and they can no longer be removed,” said the filmmaker.
In a subsequent documentary, Los Zafiros, música desde el borde del tiempo, directed by U.S. filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano, Miguel Cancio, who emigrated to Miami in 1993, tells of the disintegration of Los Zafiros, which with the same speed that they were a hit, started descending until their official dissolution in 1975.
The only two survivors of the group at that time, Miguel Cancio and Manuel Galbán, were reunited in Havana in 2001 for DeStefano’s film. There they remember the other three Zafiros who had died; they join their voices once again in “Cuando yo la conocí,” they are moved….
Ignacio Elejalde had died at 37 victim of a cerebral hemorrhage; Leoncio Morua (Kike) died of cirrhosis of the liver two years later; and Elio Hernández (El Chino), after losing his eyesight and speech because of alcohol addiction, died in 1995 at the age of 56.
The “new” Zafiros
The group was always accompanied by their guitarist, an aspect that differentiated them from the rest of the vocal groups from that time. Photo: Regino Sosa.
Now a new group led by Jorge Echevarría defends their name and their music, continuing the tradition of the legendary quartet from the 1960s.
During a recent visit to the United States by the new Zafiros, Miguel Cancio sent them a message after assessing their musical work:
“You sound great, you remind me of my brothers and you can still do better. In addition to congratulating you I want to remind you that Zafiros means unity, sacrifice and a desire to give the best of yourselves. We were a legend that the public made us, we don’t know how well the people loved us and still loves us. None of you has the same surname but when integrating that group you are baptized with the surname of Zafiros, as I use to say to my comrades. We were, are and will continue being Zafiros, thanks to the public and you who continue keeping alive that legend.”