Cuban guitarist Manuel Galbán died nearly a year ago, on July 7, at age 80. His final album, Blue Cha Cha (Concord Picante), was released in the U.S. last week. Like so many other Cuban musicians of his generation, Galbán was introduced to American listeners through the Buena Vista Social Club—though he didn't get involved until 1998, after the group's first albums were on their way to becoming global hits. He played on several Buena Vista recordings, including one by singer Ibrahim Ferrer, but he remained most famous in his homeland for his time in Los Zafiros, a sublime Cuban doo-wop ensemble that applied the vocal harmonies of American doo-wop to calypso, bossa nova, boleros, early rock 'n' roll, and (natch) various Cuban forms; he joined in 1963 and quit in '72. In 1999, after the initial success of the Buena Vista Social Club project, World Circuit/Nonesuch Records released a terrific Zafiros compilation called Bossa Cubana, packed with the group's hits; Galbán's twangy, reverb-drenched tone is as arresting as the other four members' harmony singing. You can watch a vintage clip of Los Zafiros performing "Y Sabes Bien" after the jump—it doesn't show off Galbán's guitar work as much as some of the other tracks, but the footage is wonderful. His last great record was a 2003 duo with Cooder called Mambo Sinuendo.
According to the press materials for Blue Cha Cha, Galbán sorted through about 1,000 songs when he sat down with the album's coproducers, and they clearly cast their net too wide. The album's 12 tunes wander all over the place, displaying Galbán's range in a forced and unsatisfying way. His playing is decent throughout, but the decision to have him collaborate with a bunch of different vocalists—fellow Buena Vista alum Omara Portuondo, bossa nova singer Rosa Passos, neoblues singer Eric Bibb—in addition to Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko feels like a producer-dictated mistake, and it ends up smothering Galbán's personality. The title track with Bibb, which you can hear below, is representative of the album's poorly conceived fusions, with Afro-Cuban polyrhythms grafted to a generic R&B cut. The opening track taps into the sort of vintage son that suited Galbán perfectly, but most of Blue Cha Cha collapses under the weight of its high-gloss production and artificial combinations and recombinations (there are different backing musicians on every track). As a huge fan of Galbán, I have to say that he deserved much better as a swan song.