When it comes to Cuban music, most Americans are playing catch-up: A 45-year embargo will do that to you. But as the success of the Buena Vista Social Club collective proves, there's a sizable audience in the United States eager to find out what it has been missing.
Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time documents a group who represented the modern sound of a new Cuba in the heady decade after the 1959 revolution. Los Zafiros (The Sapphires) fused Latin and Caribbean music with American doo-wop vocal harmonies, and although they were referred to as the Cuban Platters, they were not imitators. What they created in the early 1960s was an inimitable and intoxicating sound that proved political barriers can't stop cultural cross-pollination.
Director Lorenzo DeStefano fills his documentary with plenty of fan reminiscences and vintage performance footage, but the heart of the film is the reunion of the two surviving members of Los Zafiros in Havana. Singer Miguel Cancio leaves Miami and heads back to Cuba to see guitarist-arranger Manuel Galban, and the two quickly fall into a familiar rapport as they tour the Cayo Hueso neighborhood where the band was formed.
Cancio and Galban were the oldest members of Los Zafiros, and were most in the background, but it quickly becomes apparent that they were the ones who anchored the vocal flights of Lenocio "Kike" Morua, Ignacio Elejaide and Eduardo Elio "El Chino" Hernandez.
Although band members dressed in matching suits and employed Motown-style group choreography, there wasn't a sense of homogeny. Kike, Ignacio and El Chino each took the lead on songs tailored to their vocal strengths and individual tastes, which broadened their repertoire and their fan base.
The singers also took the lead in hard drinking and bad behavior, and the communal harmonies that made them such a vibrant musical force eroded. They split up after a tumultuous decade. But to see Cancio and Galban perform together again, and visit the graves of their bandmates (bearing both flowers and rum), the bond between them remains intact.
The film doesn't openly discuss race, but it's clear from Cancio's comments that the fact that they were black and came from one of Havana's poorer neighborhoods made their success all the more surprising and their fans all the more passionate. Here were outsiders who had risen to become Cuba's face to the world, and to represent new possibilities to the island's residents.
Director DeStefano packs a lot of information into a brief 79 minutes, yet he carefully skirts politics, and in Cuba, that's always the elephant in the room. Los Zafiros seemed to enjoy an artistic freedom denied to a host of Cuban musicians who went into exile. How were they affected by the Communist government? Did their success ever make them targets, or did it immunize them to the influence?
Los Zafiros doesn't answer those key questions, but as a portrait of multifaceted musicians mining the world around them and forging a new sound, it sparkles.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 3, and at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 4-5, and at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 6. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.