Doo-wop Fantástico

Los Zafiros: The Drifters of Cuban music

If Elejalde was the unmistakable star of Los Zafiros -- and make no mistake, he was -- his compadres were no mere backing group. Hernández, in particular, shines like the gem for which the group was named, especially on the lightly swinging "La Luna en Tu Mirada," which brilliantly melds slinky Cuban percussion to the slow-dance sway of classic American doo-wop. Morúa and Elejalde fight for the spotlight during "Y Sabes Bien," the centerpiece of the set and nearly three minutes of vocal one-upmanship that rivals anything in the canon of Dion and the Belmonts. It's hard to declare a winner, but I lean toward Elejalde, who brings the song to a dramatic close with a piercing, wordless moan that will haunt you well into the night.

Los Zafiros was wildly popular up to the late '60s, touring Europe, hanging out with the Beatles in France, and making countless TV appearances in Havana (clips from which can be seen between band sets on occasion at Café Nostalgia, located on Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana). Infighting, massive egos, and alcoholism eventually split up the group, though, and today only Cancio remains to bask in whatever glow emits from this belated stateside tribute to one of Cuba's most invaluable exports.

Bossa Cubana, by the way, is graced with a translated lyric sheet for gringos, but like most great doo-woppers, Los Zafiros transcend all barriers of language. The group's artistry is visceral, rhythmic, and sensual to the point that words really don't matter. After reading the lyrics, however, I was reminded that romance lies at the heart of every worthwhile doo-wop record, even the ones with titles like "Sh-Boom," "Buzz Buzz Buzz," and "Rama Lama Ding Dong." For the weeks I've spent obsessing over the myriad glories of Bossa Cubana, I found myself returning to "Canta lo Sentimental" for Manuel Galbán's gorgeous guitar intro as much as Hernández's plaintive delivery. Finally, after about 20 spins, I checked out the words, and they are as poetic, lovely, and passionate as anything in the lexicon of American doo-wop or popular music in general: "Every day it hurts/The sadness that it brings/And from my memory falls/ A secret stash of loneliness." For fans of the genre, or for any love-struck, lovesick soul seeking a little solace or comfort, those words are nothing less than perfect in any language.

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