Musical powerhouse though it is, Cuba is not well known for its electric guitarists.
However, after Ry Cooder heard the dazzling accompaniments Manuel Galbán had made during the 1960s with the vocal quartet Los Zafiros, he decided to seek him out. As a result, Galbán played extensively on Ibrahim Ferrer's 1999 debut solo album for World Circuit – as documented in Wim Wenders' film Buena Vista Social Club – which included new arrangements of two songs from the Los Zafiros repertoire. The album won a Latin Grammy.
The studio chemistry that the two guitar maestros discovered during this period led to Cooder and Galbán recording the Grammy-winning instrumental album Mambo Sinuendo (2001) and Galbán contributing to many albums by Buena Vista Social Club members, including Omara Portuondo, Orlando "Cachaíto" Lopez and Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal. For much of the following decade, Galbán's proud and meticulous but modest presence was once again a prominent fixture on the international stage, first as a member of Ferrer's touring band and later with Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
Galbán was a good-humoured and open-minded collaborator, and though not given to front-of-house grandstanding, his eternally smiling visage seemed to be that of a man fully aware of his talents, who got a great deal of fulfilment and enjoyment from the international recognition he received during more than six decades as a professional musician. In 2001, Nick Gold, the founder and head of World Circuit, issued Bossa Cubana, a compilation of Los Zafiros material, having long appreciated Galbán's distinctive style: "It was incredibly unique sounding and ever so slightly wacky ... a beautiful sound ... very much a '60s sound that he had, especially on electric [guitar]. He went for these slightly 'out there' little solos and melody lines ... slightly quirky and very individual, but very Cuban at the same time. It was quite a strange little hybrid style that he'd formulated."
Asked earlier this year by Cuba's Communist party newspaper Granma to describe his technical approach to guitar, Galbán explained: "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 synchronising and fading the strings with the other hand, a trick that I learned backing Kike's singing in Los Zafiros."
Galbán grew up immersed in music in the fishing town of Gibara in eastern Cuba. At home he would improvise with his two brothers, and played tres (a Cuban guitar with six strings in three pairs) and percussion in local groups. In July 1944, he turned professional, playing trap drums, guitar and piano with Orquesta Villa Blanca. In 1956, at the height of the mambo craze, he moved to Havana, where his piano-tuning and carpentry skills proved useful. Initially he formed a trio, busked and recorded jingles, and was soon in demand with the city's clubs, bars and radio stations.
Three months after the founding of Los Zafiros, they needed a new guitarist, and in March 1963, they headhunted Galbán. Possessing considerably more experience and maturity, he became a crucial stabilising influence on the volatile young singers, as well as their musical director, arranger, pianist and electric guitarist.
Los Zafiros' novel mix of Cuban bolero, bossa nova, calypso and American doo-wop (later described as "Doo-wop noir" by Cooder) presented with slick, Motown-inspired dance routines, soon made them one of the most successful Cuban groups of the mid-1960s. They toured Cuba's allies in the Eastern Bloc and West Africa, and during one celebrated appearance at the Olympia in Paris in 1965 they met the Beatles, who had stayed on an extra week just to see them perform.
Nevertheless, their rabble-rousing ways and excessive drinking almost drove Galbá* to distraction. "I left Los Zafiros about four times," he recalled. "But they sent me little notes via friends or they turned up all serious, trying to convince me, promising it wouldn't happen again. But I couldn't carry on at the centre of that whirlwind. Los Zafiros' slogan was 'Four voices and a guitar'. And the guitar couldn't carry on."
Galbán finally left the group at the end of 1972. In 1975 they disbanded, and three members eventually died prematurely as a result of their excesses. In contrast, Galbá* then spent three years as a member of Dirección Nacional de Música (Cuba's national musical ensemble), and in 1973 founded his own Grupo Batey. Theirs was a more traditional repertoire and over the next 23 years, they completed 87 national and international tours and recorded two albums.
Galbán's roots in Eastern Cuba made him a natural choice for the veteran group Vieja Trova Santiaguera when they asked him to tour with them and play acoustic guitar and do vocal arrangements for their 1998 album La Manigua (Virgin). However, this meant that he was a little rusty on electric guitar when Cooder and Gold came calling to find out if he would be interested in working on Ferrer's album. Struck by the similarity of Galbán's rich, twangy sound with that of Duane Eddy, Cooder pushed for his involvement. Their sinuously intertwined electric guitars on "Silencio" – the sumptuous duet between Ferrer and Portuondo – played a big part in making it such a huge hit.
Galbán contributed organ, piano and electric guitar to Mambo Sinuendo, which won him a new "lounge music" fan base, as well as a Grammy for Best Instrumental Pop albumin 2004. By then, he had become aregular with Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, with whom he madehis last UK appearances in August 2010.
At the time, Galbán was also amember of the Havana group Los Cuatro Fabulosos, and over the last three years had been working on a new album titled BlueChaCha, an overview of the numerous styles of his career, with guest appearances by Portuondo, the American bluesman Eric Bibb and the Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko among others, including his daughter. It is scheduled for release later this year.
Manuel Hilario Galbán Torralbas, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and songwriter: born Gibara, Cuba 14 January 1931; married Magda (one daughter); died Havana 7 July 2011.