Miguel Cancio: “Returning to Cuba is like being born again”

He has barely been in Cuba for hours, but Miguel Cancio He can’t hide his emotions. “My feelings are crowding again,” he says, quoting one of the most famous songs by Los Zafiros, the vocal quartet he founded in the early 1960s and that even today, six decades later, continues to be one of the most popular and significant in the history of Cuban music.

“I am a strong people, I know how to control myself; but I cry my land like crazy. I cry for her every day there in the United States. How am I not going to be moved when I have finally been able to return after twenty-one years without stepping foot in my homeland? ”, she adds, while she wipes the tears from her face. “For me, returning to Cuba is like being born again.”

Cancio emigrated thirty years ago, in 1993. By then, Los Zafiros had long ceased to exist and two of its members, Leoncio Morúa (Kike) and Ignacio Elejalde, had passed away, both just 37 years old. Shortly after, Eduardo Hernández (El Chino) would do so, and in 2011 Miguel Galbán would die, who replaced Oscar Aguirre on guitar and became the musical director of the group.

As Cancio is the only one of the singers of the famous quartet who lives —Aguirre, the first guitarist, also lives in the United States—, returning to Cuba causes him “a mixture of joy and sadness, for everything I experienced here, and for my brothers —as he calls his teammates— who are no longer here”.

His two previous trips to the island were linked to Los Zafiros. The first, for the filming of Sapphires, blue madness (1997), musical film about the history of the quartet —produced by his son Hugo Cancio and directed by Manuel Herrera— which revitalized its popularity among Cubans and became a huge box office success, whose premiere in 1997 was just twenty-five years old.

The second time, in 2001, he traveled to record the documentary Los Zafiros, music from the edge of time, directed by the American Lorenzo DeStefano, in which Cancio and Galbán met again in Havana and even sang together again. Since then, she had not returned to Cuba.

Now, more than two decades later, their journey has a family character; but Los Zafiros will accompany him throughout the month he hopes to spend on the island. Miguel, as he could not be otherwise, has a visit to the Colón Cemetery marked on his agenda, “to the grave of my brothers.” In addition, he meets with relatives of his former colleagues, who recently received in Cuba, on behalf of the deceased musicians, the medal of Great Musical Legends, from the Cuban Studies Institute of Miami.

He plans to meet with actors who starred in the film about the group and with the cultural project Amor por los Sapphires, dedicated to keeping the legacy of the legendary quartet alive, and to continue working on their memories and that of the group.

“I never thought we had so much importance; I swear. That after so much time people would continue to remember us and our music would continue to be listened to with such affection,” he comments to OnCuba, with memories on the surface. We made music with desires, because we liked to sing, and we weren’t thinking about fame, far from it. We finished rehearsing and we went to the lots, to play ball, even fly kites with the boys, because we were people from the neighborhood. And by the time 7 at night arrived, it was bathe, dress and behave like an artist. And that, in addition to our songs, was something that people loved: that we stayed like that and never got to our heads. We would sing the same thing in a cabaret as in a solar”.

“And now, when I pass by a place in Havana where we performed, or where we met to talk, it will be difficult to contain my emotions, because I feel that they are always with me,” he recalls with a broken voice. Right here, at the Riviera hotel, we took a photo for a record cover, the five of us. Of them, I am the only one left alive. Do you know how I feel to be here after so long, in the same place? Well, I feel as if I were young again, and they were accompanying me, with the same joy, with the same desire as then.”

Havana, beautiful Havana

For the octogenarian Miguel Cancio, returning to Cuba is “very special” because it allows him to reunite with his family, with his daughters whom he has not seen for a long time; with his grandchildren, some of whom he only knew through video calls. “It is an incredible emotion to be together with the family; feel that affection, that hug, that warmth that we Cubans always have when we are together. Nothing compares to that,” he states.

And in that return to the seed, postponed due to the pandemic, his house, his neighborhood, his city, occupy a privileged place in his feelings. As they have always occupied in her memory.

“I want to visit my neighborhood of Belén; the quays. My house is still there, in Habana 1019, between Desamparados and San Isidro, in the heart of Belén. My family still lives there, the cousins ​​that I carried and slept when I was still a boy, who now even have grandchildren. I really want to go,” he says. When I walk through that door and go up that staircase, I know I won’t be able to hold back crying. And when I go for a walk through the streets, when I pass by the places where I lived so many things, where I was so happy, by the places that hold many memories for me, which are so many, I know it’s going to be tremendous. I haven’t reacted yet because I’ve just arrived, and I haven’t walked yet, I haven’t touched the city, but I know it’s going to be like that”.

Although it has been two decades since he was in his hometown and he knows that he should not look like the one he left behind, Cancio assures that his love for her is still intact.

“Even though they tell me that Havana is no longer the same, that if there are streets that are destroyed and a series of other things, that does not make me less excited to return, to see those places that I have known all my life. We all get old. I am not the same with more than 80 years as when I was 20; it is the law of life. And Havana, even battered, even aged, would say that she is like a beautiful woman who, even though she is battered by time, her beauty, her grace, still maintains them. For me, Havana will always be beautiful: it was, is and will be. Just like Cuba,” she adds.

Miguel assures that the return is done “without rancor of any kind”, despite any difference or pain from the past. “What happened, happened,” he says. “We are all Cubans, those from here and those from there. And Cuba belongs to all Cubans, to all of us who always carry it in our hearts, whether we return or not.”

“We may not agree on the way of thinking; but we are children of the same homeland, we were born from the same land, which is like our mother. And he who does not love his homeland does not love anyone, “he comments before kissing a medal of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre that he wears around her neck:” La Patroness, I adore her “.

Miguel Cancio, founder of Los Zafiros, kisses a medal of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, in Havana, after more than 20 years without traveling to Cuba. Photo: Otmaro Rodriguez.

“I am a citizen of the United States, I owe a lot to that country; but I miss my homeland every day,” he insists. Therefore, being here is like being reborn. It makes me feel even more Cuban, if that were possible, and I ask God that when it is my turn to die, he will allow me to do it in Cuba. And if it is not possible, I would like my remains, my ashes, to be brought to Cuba; to rest forever in it. That’s my wish”.

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