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As someone born and raised in Hawai’i, I felt an immediate affinity when I first encountered Cuba and its people in July of 1993. This was my first visit to the island. I had been asked by Susan Rubin, a Los Angeles playwright friend, to direct a travelling production of her play, “Life & Death-The Vaudeville Show”, at the Festival del Caribe in Santiago. Travelling with a dozen Americans making our first journey into this particular area of the unknown, we presented this allegorical play to enthusiastic audiences at the Cabildo Theater and other venues in Cuba’s second largest city. We were met with the kind of friendliness and openness I’d come to know in my homeland as “the spirit of Aloha”. Coming from an island culture, the strangers we encountered in Hawai’i were not strangers for long, at least those we chose to embrace from among the thousands that hit our shores. They would be swept up into the easygoing rhythms of our island ways.
The same was true of all of the Cuban friends I made that year, among them the great film director Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the actress Mirtha Ibarra, the artists Pedro Pulido and Asela Diaz, and Eduardo Uribazo in Santiago. There was something going on between me and these people that went beyond the casual relations between resident and tourist. It was only much later that I learned that Cuba and Hawai’i, while almost 5,000 miles apart, share the same polar latitude, 21° north of the Equator. Whether it was this geographical link that united us or something else, that first journey was in many ways a life changer, fundamental to my evolution as a person.
Having begun my creative work as a teenage street photographer in Honolulu, I had by 1993 turned my attention more to developing my skills as a writer and filmmaker. I had not taken pictures for some time. That first journey to Cuba in 1993 reawakened in me, as it has in many, perceptions and sensitivities that had been locked up for years.
In 1996 I reunited in Santiago with my friend, the late Juan de Mata Montero Reyes, who I’d met in ’93 at the Cabildo Theater in Santiago, where he’d been the lighting designer for over 25 years. I had been invited by UNEAC, the Cuban union of writers & artists, to show my photographs from 1993.
My photographic encounters with Cuba and its people are part of my ongoing search for those moments when lives intersect, where people reveal themselves to each other, personally and through the lens, and our gazes meet.
Which brings us around to my encounter with the great Cuban pop group, Los Zafiros. It was around 1998 when I first became aware of them after purchasing a compilation CD, “Bossa Cubana”, at the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. I was immediately struck by the group’s buoyant spirit and the depth of their melancholy.
There was no mistaking the rich vocal harmonies and intriguing mix of Doo-Wop, Son, Bossa, Filin, Afro-Cuban, and the incredibly fine songwriting skills of the great Cuban composers with whom they worked, including Rolando Vergara, Luis Chanivecky, Jose Robles Díaz, Oscar Aguirre de Fontana, and many others. Being no big fan of Doo-Wop (it seemed like music for old-timers), the idiom was transformed by Los Zafiros into the hippest groove this side of the Malecón. I was charmed by the back story of friends from the streets of Havana’s Cayo Hueso neighborhood who yearned to sing, to become famous. The story of Kike Morúa, Miguel Cancio, Ignacio Elijalde, Eduardo Elio Hernandez and Manuel Galbán embodied a classic rock-n-roll tale of heady fame followed by swift decline and subsequent obscurity, all against the romantic and challenging backdrop of Cuba’s volcanic revolution.
For those whose lives they deeply touched, Los Zafiros are legends. Their music, and the history and emotion behind it, convinced me to embark on yet another perilous filmmaking journey. Working with my talented and dynamic assistant director in Havana, Victor Pina Tabío, we put together a team that filmed in and around the city for four weeks in December of 2001.
Over thirty years after their breakup, the two surviving band members at the time, multiple-Grammy winner and Buena Vista Social Club alumnus Manuel Galbán, and the group’s co-founder, Miguel Cancio, (the group’s sole surviving member now) reunited for our cameras in the streets of present-day Havana, a place full of unforgettable songs and memories for them and for their still-loyal fans.
Evocative archival films, topical newsreels, and TV commercials were found and woven into the story of Los Zafiros and life in Cuba at the height of the Cold War with the United States. It became clear that, as an American, to play politics with this story would be a fundamental and foolish mistake. My instincts as a filmmaker were to focus on the music and the people it most affected. Los Zafiros provided the soundtrack to many thousands of lives. The more I probed the richer the legend became. The different personalities of the five key members and the fate of three of them was a complicated human and show business story, like that of any band that makes it big.
I soon realized what an honor it was to be allowed to tell the comprehensive story of one of Cuba’s most famous groups. My goal was to disappear, so that the nationality of the filmmaker was never part of the story. Hence, the decision to make the film primarily in Spanish and without a narrator. This was to be a story told by the participants and those with informed opinions about the group and its history. The goal was to create a stirring and definitive portrait of Los Zafiros for those who knew them, and for a whole new audience as well.
Los Zafiros-Music From the Edge of Time had its world premiere at the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano in December, 2002. The warm reaction given to me and to the film seemed to confirm that the story of “The Beatles of 1960s Cuba” was a memorable one, with much deeper meaning than I at first perceived. More than one person seemed shocked that the filmmaker was not Cuban, the ultimate compliment. Many older people told me that the film had given them their youth back. It is because of sentiments like this that I’m most proud of the work my team and I did to preserve these lives and this music for generations to come. People need to be reminded that around the same time John, Paul, George and Ringo were in Liverpool as The Beatles, another band was coming together in the Caribbean that would inspire similar adoration in their homeland and on their extensive European travels as part of the Grand Music Hall of Cuba. Then, as now, fifty three years after their founding in 1962, Los Zafiros shines like a glittering beacon from another time, a reminder that what binds people and countries together are not ideologies but the love of great characters, great stories, and truly great music.
February 23, 2015
Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, Lorenzo DeStefano is a director member of the Directors Guild of America. “Los Zafiros-Music from the Edge of Time” is his multi-award-winning music feature about the Beatles of 1960s Cuba (www.loszafirosfilm.com). He is currently in production on the feature documentary “Rachel Flowers-Hearing is Believing” about a prodigiously talented young musician and composer in California who has been blind since birth (www.rachelflowersfilm.com). Visit www.lorenzodestefano.com to learn more about his work as a filmmaker, writer and photographer.
Vallonea Award – Best Documentary
Salento Film Festival –
Best Music Documentary
Park City Film Music Festival
Special Documentary Prize
Santiago Alvarez Festival –
Best Feature Documentary
Best Use of Music in a Film
Cmj Music Marathon
Grand Festival Award
Berkeley Film & Video Festival
Best Arts Documentary
Wine Country Film Festival
“Impossible not to be moved… weaves a spell that will stick with you long after the credits roll.”NPR Fresh Air
“Emotion-charged…a beautiful, tender film.”LA Times
“Crowd-pleasing…an appealing mix of artistry, nostalgia and unspoken political overtones… a musical, historical & emotional odyssey.” Variety
“Truly a gem…A beautiful ode to the power of friendship, loyalty, and love for one’s cultural heritage.”Afro Toronto
“A fabulous new documentary…affirms the power of music to unite people in a common bond.” Chicago Sun-Times
“A stirring portrait of post-revolutionary Cuba…vivid and moving… featuring a soundtrack that should not be missed.”Florida Film Festival is March 2015 This article formed part of the March 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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