Cuban Guitar Icon and Buena Vista Social Club's Manuel Galbán dies at 80

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Photo by Alejandro Perez

(Havana, Cuba) — Manuel Galbán born in 1931 (Gibara, Holguín Province Cuba), died Thursday of a heart attack in Havana at 80 years old.

Making his professional debut in 1944, Galbán joined the internationally acclaimed Los Zafiros in 1963, which combined the traditional filín movement with other music styles such as bolero, doo-wop, calypso music, bossa nova and rock. This fusion transformed Los Zafiros into one of the most popular Cuban groups of the time. They group achieved international fame and performed at several venues in Europe including the Paris Olympia, a concert that was even attended by the Beatles. Although Galbán wasn’t the first guitarist to perform for Los Zafiros, he did remain with the group for the majority of their careers, becoming one of their key members. He was so important to the group’s success that the prominent Cuban pianist Peruchi once said of him: “You’d need two guitarists to replace Galbán”.

From 1972 through 1975, Galbán led Cuba’s national music ensemble, Dirección Nacional de Música, before forming his own group Batey where he remained for 23 years. With Batey, Galbán toured the world and became one of the key ambassadors of Cuban music. During this period he recorded number of albums documenting popular Cuban music with the prestigious Cuban record label Egrem and the Bulgarian label Balkanton.

Galbán later joined the group Vieja Trova Santiaguera for two years before answering Ry Cooder’s call to take part in a project featuring Ibrahim Ferrer which subsequently lead to his long standing membership with the Buena Vista Social Club along with, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo and Cachaito Lopez.

Wim Wenders’ film on the BVSC allowed an entire generation of Cuban musicians to experience a new beginning and revived Galbán’s recording career. Galbán not only was the guitarist for the other members of the Buena Vista Social Club’s recordings such as Ibrahim Ferrer and “Cachaíto” López, but his duet world-wide internationally acclaimed album Mambo Sinuendo with Ry Cooder catapulted him to a household name in world music circles. “Galbán and myself felt that there existed a sound that had yet to be explored, there was scope for a Cuban band with an electric guitar to once again convey that fifties atmosphere in a smooth, simple yet lush manner. Our group has two electric guitarists, two drummers, a conga player and a bassist: a sextet with the potential to sound like a big band and unveil the mysteries of classical melodies. The result is powerful, lyrical and entertaining music”, Cooder explains referring to the sessions when the album was concocted. In 2003 Mambo Sinuendo was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY Award, and was recognized by Downbeat magazine for best jazz performance. In 2004 the album received a GRAMMY Award for the Best Pop Instrumental Album.

For more than a decade Manuel Galbán has toured the world performing with the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club Orchestra, and over the past three years preparing his latest album BlueChaCha.

Galbán reworks some of the tracks that he himself has stated formed his musical identity. “Initially we had a list of more than one thousand tunes”, he reveals when discussing the album’s initial plans. Galbán surrounds himself with some of his long-time colleagues including Omara Portuondo, Rosa Passos, and is joined by Trío Esperança, Eric Bibb, Marcelo Mercadante and Sissoko Ballaké. His daughter Magda Rosa Galbán and Juan Antonio Leyva contributed to the arrangements.

Long-time manager of Manuel and the Buena Vista Social Club Daniel Florestano says, “it is a very sad day for Cuban music and fans of Cuban Music. Galbán’s enormous impact world-wide with his unique guitar sound and warm smile will be missed by many.”