A Song of Cuba: “Guantanamera”

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Cuong Tran - Photographer

A Song of Cuba: “Guantanamera”

By Michelle Stebleton, Associate Professor of Horn, FSU, mstebleton@fsu.edu

Recently, PBS aired a special called Weekend in Havana. To my delight, they showed many area musicians, emphasizing that music is an important part of the Cuban culture. I reminisced about my own trip as the cameraman panned past a combo that performs regularly on the Malecón; those same musicians were the first of many to play for me the song “Guantanamera,” apparently a tourist favorite. As I passed various groups, the national folk song was crooned and belted with huge smiles and great enthusiasm, eyes sparkling as if to let the listener in on a cultural secret.

What exactly is the secret behind the most popular Cuban song? The refrain is about a beautiful green-eyed girl from Guantánamo. Love is grand, but why this song? The official verses were adapted from the poetry of Cuban poet and hero, José Martí. Patriotism is widely popular, but why this song?

Complicated songs do not usually endure in the mainstream. “Guantanamera” has only three chords—easy enough for the amateur guitarist to muster—and a limited vocal range of just over an octave, unlike our national anthem that causes vocal injury to the casual singer.  “Guantanamera” has a standard set of lyrics, but its chordal simplicity lends itself to improvisation much the way that people will make up lyrics on the spot to a 12-bar blues. Singers from all over the world have recorded the song, and comedians have used it to entertain. Even Saturday Night Live did a song-style parody using this simple melody.

Perhaps most influential, Joseíto Fernández Díaz, the composer of the refrain, used the melody of the verse to sing his commentary of political events on his Cuban radio show… or to express his love for a woman on any given day. Show after show, the verse with its many versions of political and humorous lyrics, and the two-word refrain used as the show’s sign-off, catapulted the folk song into the hearts and minds of the local people. It became embedded in the Cuban culture. With its adaptable simplicity and its ties to all parts of the Cuban culture, “Guantanamera” is a song of politics, humor, love—a song of Cuba.

Refrain:

Guantanamera,

guajira guantanamera.

Guantanamera,

guajira guantanamera.

Verse 1:

Yo soy un hombre sincero

de dónde crece la palma.

Yo soy un hombre sincero

de dónde crece la palma

y antes de morirme quiero,

echar mis versos del alma.