Cuban Guitar Icon, Buena Vista Social Club Member Manuel Galban Dies at 80

Guitarist Manuel Galbán, best known in the U.S. for the 2003 Mambo Sinuendo album he recorded with Ry Cooder, died Thursday of a heart attack in Havana, Cuba. He was 80.

Galbán, who made his his professional debut in 1944, joined Los Zafiros in 1963. The band combined the traditional filín movement with other music styles such as bolero, doo-wop, calypso music, bossa nova and rock. The fusion transformed Los Zafiros into one of the most popular Cuban groups of the time.

The group achieved international fame and performed at venues in Europe including the Paris Olympia, a concert that was attended by The Beatles. Although Galbán wasn't the first guitarist to perform for Los Zafiros, he remained with the group for years, 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 several albums documenting popular Cuban music with the prestigious Cuban record label Egrem and the Bulgarian label Balkanton.

Galbán later joined Vieja Trova Santiaguera for two years before answering 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 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 Ferrer and López, but his acclaimed album Mambo Sinuendo with Cooder catapulted him to a household name in world music circles.

"Galbán and I felt 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 '50s 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," says Cooder, 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.

Daniel Florestano, long-time manager of Manuel and the Buena Vista Social Club, 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."

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.