MANUEL Hilario Galbán Torralbas, the
famous guitarist, composer and ex- director of Los
Zafiros, celebrated his 80th birthday this January
14. He is one of the great stars of the Buena Vista
Social Club, with a musical life dating back more
than 60 years, and 170 musical tours under his belt.
He remains a member of the group Los Cuatro
He has won the City of Gibara Shield,
the Cuban Culture Distinction, the Adolfo Guzmán
Distinction, the Raúl Gómez García Medal, La Gitana
Tropical Prize, and the only one missing is the
National Music Prize.
He has a collection of guitars in
his home in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, including
the one he played with Los Zafiros and a Fender
given to him by Ry Cooder. There are photos of him
with stars of music and film.
Galbán, let’s recall your first
musical steps in Gibara.
Gibara is a fishing town where many
boats arrive from Nassau. In our home my whole
family played music from the oral tradition, I would
improvise with two of my brothers, in serenades and
play the tres in amateur groups. I also
played percussion which has served me well in my
work as an accompanist for singers. II came into the
world with music within me and learned many
instruments on my own; I play piano for love.
When did you begin to play
In July of 1944, I was playing in
dance halls with the Orquesta Villa Blanca, I
mastered the guitar, the trap drums and when
necessary I played piano. In those days I admired
the music of Orquesta Avilés, the oldest in Cuba.
When did you arrive in Havana?
In 1956. I arrived in the big city
with some crumpled bills in my pocket, a change of
clothes and a toothbrush; I began to try my luck, it
was the great moment of Cuban music, the mambo was
the rage. I tuned pianos, I’m a carpenter, I still
have my tools. I recorded some commercial jingles,
sometimes I played in the streets, passed the hat,
to earn some money. I began with a trio, we went to
jam sessions, serenades, we were doing a show in the
Club 6 Panamerica; for a time I was with the
Conjunto Casablanca, we performed at Hernando’s
Hideaway Club. I accompanied the singers Lino
Borges, Caridad Hierrezuelo and Evelio Rodríguez.
How did you come to Los Zafiros?
Three months after the group’s
debut, December 1962; in other words in March 1963.
Reinaldo Hierrezuelo asked me to stand in for the
previous guitarist. Los Zafiros were empiric
singers, they needed a musician to accompany them,
to arrange the tunes and play guitar, piano. It was
difficult to accompany them without clashing with
their harmony, they were an atypical quartet,
different, very special.
How were Los Zafiros musically?
Very musical, they had natural
talent, exceptional – remember they were of mixed
race, street guys – they moved to the rhythm of the
clave, they were spectacular, unique.
Was Los Zafiros’ only foreign tour
the test of fire?
In 1965 we went with the
Music Hall de Cuba to Paris and continued on in some
Eastern European countries. There we were, just a
guitar and four voices, beginning to enjoy the
demanding audience of the great French theater, the
Paris Olympia, we were the most applauded in the
broad and prestigious line up which included stars
like Orquesta Aragón, Los Papines, Elena Burke. In
Moscow they used to touch Ignacio Elejalde’s throat
to see what he had inside of his privileged throat.
Was it the end of the world after
I stopped playing with Los Zafiros
toward the end of 1972, the break up was stormy and
sad, as happens with great loves; but the show has
to go on. Another phase began, in 1973 I founded the
group Batey, with a more traditional repertoire and
the project took off, we did 87 tours. During that
same period Chucho Valdés’ Los Irakere appeared on
By the end of the 20th century La
Vieja Trova Santiaguera had arrived…
In January 1998, right in the middle
of the Cuban salsa boom, that was the rebirth of the
old guard of Cuban trova. I played Spanish guitar
with them, I also helped with the voice
arrangements. We recorded two albums: La manigua
and Mambo sinuendo, with Ry Cooder.
How did you come to the Buena
Vista Social Club?
My arrival in Buena Vista Social
Club is owed to Ry Cooder’s surprise at the way I
play guitar, very similar to the legendary guitarist
Duane Eddy. So Ry said, "Find Galbán," he called me
the "guitar wizard," gave me a Fender guitar and
asked me to do a recording with him.
What work did you do with Ry Cooder?
We recorded Mambo sinuendo,
which won the 2003 Latin Grammy for Best
Tropical Contemporary Album. We improvised in the
recording sessions without having rehearsed, and had
stars like Orlando López "Cachao". It was an album
of diverse tones, very varied and rich, hence its
What is your technical approach to
playing the guitar?
I combine fast passages with
arpeggios, while making appropriate use of the bass
strings, in that way I give the sensation that more
than one musician is playing. I set about
synchronizing and fading the strings with the other
hand, a trick that I learned backing Kike’s singing
in Los Zafiros.
Is that why the great pianist
Peruchín said that in order to replace Galbán in Los
Zafiros you’d have to put in two guitarists?
Exactly, I was doing the work of two
guitars, remember that we had to economize on
instruments because of difficulties finding pianos
and other instruments in nightclubs in the decade of
What compositions have you written?
Three compositions recorded with Los
Zafiros: "Oye Nicolás," "Hoy brilla el sol", and
"Por muy lejos". With La Vieja Trova
Santiaguera: "Se paró la moto", "De contén a contén"
(dedicated to street sweepers). Other titles:
"Tierno amanecer", "Baila mi guaguancó" and "Tambó,
What’s going to happen with Manuel
Galbán in 2011?
In March of 2011, there’s the
premiere of a film dedicated to one of my albums,
debuting in New York’s Carnegie Hall. It’s a CD with
seven great musical stars participating, among them
Omara Portuondo representing Cuba. My daughter Magda
Galbán and her husband Juan Antonio Leyva are doing
the musical production. The executive producer is
Daniel Florestano of the Montuno company which
manages Buena Vista Social Club.
Galbán, has good luck followed you?
I’ve had a lot of luck, I have seven
lives. I have had four serious blows to my health,
but I always get back up and say, like Compay
Segundo, "I’m asking for a stay of execution."