In 1956, Galbán moved to Havana where for seven years he performed in bars and clubs, made several radio appearances and was featured on a number of albums. This was a key stage in Galbán’s career as he began to make a name for himself on the Cuban music scene. He also developed the sound that he would become renowned for. Galbán became one of the first guitarists to use his right hand to mute the sound of the strings, while creating dry, metallic tones that draw the guitar’s sound closer to that of a percussion instrument. Likewise, his interest in the music being produced in the United States led him to explore sounds that would later become popular in the realm of surf music, sounds he would come to incorporate within his own style.
In 1963, seven years after moving to Havana, Galbán joined Los Zafiros, a vocal group formed the previous year that combined the Cuban music style filín with the sounds of bolero, doo-wop, calypso music, bossa nova and rock. This fusion transformed Los Zafiros into one of the most popular Cuban groups of the time. They even achieved international fame and performed at several venues in Europe, including the Paris Olympia. Although Galbán wasn’t the first guitarist to perform for Los Zafiros, he did remain with the group for a long time, becoming one of their key members. He was so important to the group’s success that the prominent pianist Peruchin once said of him: “You’d need two guitarists to replace Galbán.”
Galbán left Los Zafiros in 1972 due to problems within the group. He eventually formed the group Batey, where he remained for 23 years as guitarist, pianist and musical director, territory with which he had already become familiar in Los Zafiros. With Batey, Galbán toured the world, becoming a key ambassador of Cuban music, and he recorded number of albums documenting popular music with the prestigious Cuban record label Egrem and also worked with the Bulgarian label Balkanton.
After his spell with Batey, Galbán joined the group Vieja Trova Santiaguera for two years before answering Ry Cooder’s call to take part in an Ibrahim Ferrer recording and subsequently join Buena Vista Social Club. As with the other musicians, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo and Cachaito Lopez, Galbán’s career witnessed a renaissance.
Touring internationally, Buena Vista Social Club quickly managed to reach foreign audiences that had barely heard of these musicians who had helped forge their country’s popular music scene. Galbán, along with the others, had finally returned to the place where his career had begun. He soon began touring again, just like the years with Los Zafiros and the group Batey. Along with their colleagues, these older musicians performed in such emblematic venues as the Sydney Opera House, London’s Albert Hall and at Europe’s top festivals. Galbán once again felt he was what he’d always wanted to be: a musician through and through.
The success of the Buena Vista Social Club series of albums and Wim Wenders’ film allowed an entire generation of Cuban musicians to experience a second youth. It also revived Galbán’s recording career, not only by working on recordings by other members of the Buena Vista Social Club such as Ibrahim Ferrer, “Cachaíto” López or Omara Portuondo, but also because of the album he recorded alongside Ry Cooder in Havana, Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch, 2003). This acclaimed album, conceived as a one-on-one production by two of the American continent’s biggest maestros of the guitar fully exploits the musical fruits of Galbán’s career. “Galbán and myself felt that there existed a sound that had yet to be explored,” Cooder said. “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.” In 2003, Mambo Sinuendo was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY® Award and won DownBeat’s prize for best jazz performance. In 2004, the album received a GRAMMY® in the category of Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Galbán continued to tour the world and perform with the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. In 2010, after three years of work, he recorded his final album, Bluechacha. On this CD/DVD set for June 26, 2012 release on Concord Picante, a division of Concord Music Group, Galbán recast some of the tracks that had formed part of his early musical training. “At first, we had a list of more than one thousand tunes,” he said of the album’s initial plans. He surrounded himself with some of his longtime colleagues, including Omara Portuondo, as well as Rosa Passos, performing classic Cuban traditional music and fresh, previously unheard compositions. The impressive list of guests on Bluechacha features Trío Esperança, Eric Bibb, Marcelo Mercadante and Ballaké Sissoko. These are one-on-one arrangements, with the aim of triumphing together rather than vying for the limelight, and they demonstrate how the unique sound of Galbán’s guitar retains its sensitivity and relevance.
As impressive is the underlying concept behind the album is, in his the quest to forge a work that revives one of the foremost components – the arrangements – he called on his daughter Magda Rosa Galbán and Juan Antonio Leyva to contribute.
On Bluechacha, Galbán returned to his trademark sound, fusing guitar and percussion. The result is a recording with an almost orchestral feel, bursting with the energy that only he could glean from the guitar. With his uniquely personal stylistic elegance, Galbán could transform any tune into a gem, adapting it to a language ahead of its time, a language he created, where the sounds of the instrument bore as much significance as the discourse of the guitar. Galbán was a cornerstone of the six-string instrument, and he achieved something that very few are ever able to do: only a couple of bars are needed to recognize his unmistakable style.
Manuel Galbán passed away on July 7, 2011 at his home in Havana, Cuba. Bluechacha was his final gift to the world. While Galbán himself may be gone, his passion for life continues in the recording that survives him.