>Manuel Galbán, who died Thursday in Havana, was best known in Cuba for the grooving electric guitar stylings that backed the Cuban vocal quartet Los Zafiros, who catapulted to international fame in the '60s. He found new audiences worldwide in 2003 with his Grammy-winning instrumental album "Mambo Sinuendo," recorded with Ry Cooder and members of the Buena Vista Social Club. He was 80 years old.
With his lanky frame and long sideburns, Galbán, who looked younger than his years, was the embodiment of Cuban cool. Born in Holguín province (his name is spelled Galván in Cuba, but become Galbán on the Buena Vista recordings), he began playing professionally at age 13, and developed his outstanding style of Cuban soul music on both guitar and piano. He joined the vocal quartet Los Zafiros as musical director in 1963, accompanying the vocal harmonies and choreographed dance moves of the American style quartet with Cuban infused rhythms on electric guitar.
"I kept the beat by watching their feet," he told this writer in an interview in Havana. "They were that rhythmic."
Surviving Zafiros member Miguel Cancio, reached at his home in Miami Friday, recalled the potent sound of Galbán´s playing on both guitar and piano.
"There was something unique and so beautiful about his sound," said Cancio, whose son Hugo is the director of a biopic about the group, "Los Zafiros, Locura Azul." He described Galbán as both a master musician and a cut-up who was always joking with the other members of the group. "Galbán was like a one-man orchestra. Meeting him was the best thing that could have happened to us as a band."
Galbán left Los Zafiros in the early '70s, although he and Cancio remained friends even after Cancio went into exile. The guitarist subsequently joined the Grupo Batey, which toured frequently in Europe and Latin America.
In 1998, Galbán toured and recorded with the traditional Cuban group Vieja Trova Santiaguera. But he considered himself mostly retired and was playing only occasional gigs in Havana, when, in 1999, he was summoned by "Buena Vista Social Club" producer Ry Cooder. He nervously made his way in his rickety Eastern Bloc car to a studio in Old Havana, where he played guitar on two Zafiros songs for Buena Vista vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer's solo album. The success of that collaboration resulted in the Galbán-Cooder album, "Mambo Sinuendo," an instrumental disc that brought the retro Buena Vista brand to a younger lounge music crowd and won a 2004 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
His international career revitalized, Galbán toured with other members of the Buena Vista Social Club and recently recorded an album, "Blue cha cha," to be released on Barcelona´s Montuno label.