Guantanamera

A song which we all should know. Its name alone resonates deep within me and in perfect time with my heartbeat. Guantanamera. I love it when a song, its rhythms and beat, affect me with such physicality. Guantanamera is one such song. Imagine my excitement when I recently heard a new version of this Latin American musical gem. For anyone who has not heard “Guantanamera” and would like to listen: click here and please tell me what you think of it.

Guantanamera

This  version of Guantanamera is a vast collaboration of no less than 75 Cuban recording artists. It was produced by Playing for Change [1]. They recorded and produced this track with Jackson Browne, who stated that traveling with Playing for Change across Cuba was one of the most rewarding and inspiring musical experiences of his life.

As with the most popular versions of this song, this latest recording, is based upon that of Julián Orbón (1925-1991). It was made with a selection of verses from poems by the Cuban poet José Martí’s Versos sencillos, Simple Verses, intertwined with these three very special musical words:

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera.

Guantanamera - Music for change

The Simple Verses are rich in profound and colourful symbolism [2]. The couplet below captures the simple power of the words; a call from the past, to today, for tolerance and respect:

Cultivo una rosa blanca
En julio como en enero
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.

Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera.

Y para el cruel que me arranca
el corazón con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
cultivo una rosa Blanca.

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera.

… …

I grow a white rose
in July just as in January
for the honest friend
who gives me his open hand.

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera.

And for the cruel one who tears out
the heart with which I live,
no thistle or nettle I grow;
I grow a white rose. [3]

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera.

José Martí

José Martí

José Martí’s writing (1853-1895) contributed greatly to the Spanish modernist literary movement. He is known as one of the greatest figures of the Cuban Revolution and a Latin American intellectual. He also became a symbol of Cuba’s independence against Spain in the 19th Century. In time, this song was destined to become an unofficial anthem of Cuba.

But … what do guantanamera and guajira mean and why does this refrain appear between the verses?

Both words come from the aboriginal taínos dialect, an indigenous Caribbean ethnic group, and became part of the Spanish language, as did many other indigenous words.

Women from the countryside in Cuba, mujeres del campo, are named guajiras (masculine: guajiros).

Guantanamera_cover

As for guantanamera, it sounds similar to the term Guantánamo, the easternmost province of Cuba; and indeed guantanamera refers to a woman originally from Guantánamo (masculine: guantanamero).

Who was that anonymous country woman from Guantánamo, who inspired such a song? She became part of the legend of this song, as the Brazilian Garota de Ipanema, the Girl from Ipanema, did with the homonymous song?

As with any myth, the origins of the song Guantanamera are lost in the mists of time. However, the controversies about the genesis, and authorship of the tune and lyrics still remain.

We do know that, by the end of the 1920’s, this song was already being sung in Cuba and nearly 100 years later it has a new lease of life and it is infusing a new generation of fans to carry it onwards.

cuba6

In the hot humid afternoons of 1930’s Cuba, the radio program El suceso del día, The Events of the Day, Radio CMQ, in La Habana, became very popular. Crime stories selected from the newspaper were sung proficiently to the tune of Guantanamera by the Cuban singer/songwriter/composer Joseíto Fernández (1908-1979). Actors also re-enacted the news events live on air and for several years Guantanamera became one of the most followed radio programs in Cuba.

It is said that Joseíto Fernández would have sung variations of the refrain in other radio stations, such as guajira holguinera (woman from Holguín Province) or guajira camagüeña (woman from Camaguey Province).

According to one of the accounts, he fell in love with a woman from Guantánamo who was very jealous. It appears that the “guajira guantanamera” found him talking (or flirting with …) another woman and following a tantrum and a curse, she ran away and he never saw her again. That day, he sung the song as usual and the audience was so enchanted with that version that they called the radio station in their hundreds to request that he continue singing those particular lyrics and he did.

Guantanamera cover

The best known version of Guantanamera is the version by Julián Orbón, who used Joseíto Fernandez’s original music, including the well known refrain, intertwined with the fragments of José Marti’s Simple Verses.

The American songwriter and activist Peter Seeger (1919-2014) reworked and recorded a live version of the song on his album We Shall Overcome, at Carnegie Hall, in 1963.

In 1966, The Sandpipers recorded it, to some acclaim, and their version become a Top 10 hit in the UK. Click here to listen to their version.

When the beat of the music is with the beat of the heart, a song becomes a musical treasure. However, Guantanamera transcends its music, the words of Marti’s verses convey that perennial call for tolerance, respect, inclusiveness, equality and freedom; and it makes Guantanamera a song standing for those rights that are universal and indivisible.

Then, “in July just as in January, I grow a white rose”.

Guantanamera - The Sandpippers

— —

[1] Playing for Change is a movement founded by Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, created to inspire and connect the world through music, with the belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.

[2] The book Poemas sencillos, Simple Verses, comprises 46 poems written in a short form, using simple words, deliberately putting meaning over form. Besides this, the poems are of regular rhyme, scheme and alliteration.

[3] Free translation.

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About hoxton spanish tutor info

Hi, my name is Adrian Sanchez. I am passionate about words and languages, particularly Spanish, the language I learned at my mother’s knee. I am curious about how languages change and evolve. I am a qualified Spanish Teacher (CLTA) and a journalist. I have taught in literacy campaigns in Latin America and given Spanish tuition in Spain and in the UK. I would like to share some of my thoughts on the Spanish language; and particularly on what I have learned from my students, who in many ways have become my teachers throughout the years. Spanish is a vast and beautiful language and I would like you to accompany me on a journey of discoveries, so I will be presenting two blogs per month and I would like to hear from you. Here is a link to my webpage: spanish-tutor.info You can visit my blog here: spanishtutorinfo.wordpress.com Email: info@Spanish-tutor.info Thank you!

31 responses to “Guantanamera”

  1. Hugo Isa says :

    la guantanamera de Joan Baez

    Like

  2. hoxton spanish tutor info says :

    ¡Muchas gracias Hugo!

    Esta versión de Guantanamera me trae recuerdos de los 70’s. ¡Esta es una versión muy bonita de la incomparable Joan Baez!

    Adrián

    Like

  3. Carl D'Agostino says :

    Having lived in Miami for 60 years I have some Spanish vocabulary, pero que lastima, yo tengo solamente unas cien o doscientas palabras … My ex was from Cuba so my children are half Spanish and half Italian. My mother’s side Sicilian and father’s half Roman and half Spaniard. I remember the song. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Malctg - The Foureyed Poet. says :

    Hi Adrian great song. Nice to meet you. Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

    Like

  5. bo says :

    Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog.

    Like

  6. derrickjknight says :

    A fascinating essay on a beautiful piece of music

    Like

  7. vanbytheriver says :

    Ah…one of my favorite songs to learn. I fell in love with the Spanish language in 9th grade with the ALM (Audio-Lingual Method) approach. We memorized conversations and spoke the language before ever seeing it in writing. Look forward to exploring your blog. Thanks for visiting mine. Van

    Like

  8. leggypeggy says :

    Thanks so much for all this detail. I had no idea Guantanamera had such a long history. I grew listening to the versions by Pete Seeger and later The Sandpipers.

    Like

  9. dunelight says :

    I’d never heard the Pete Seeger nor Joan Baez versions before. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    Like

  10. Stuff Jeff Reads says :

    Gracias! I used to hear that song all the time in Miami and never knew what it meant. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist says :

    Love this song. Most enjoyable reading your posts. Look forward to learning a bit of Spanish.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. bruce thomas witzel says :

    I really enjoyed this Adrian… “with the poor people of the earth i want to share my faith”, and listened to all the versions (including Joan Baez). I hadn’t realized the words were from Jose Marti… I also enjoyed your post on inclusiveness. I know only a tiny bit of Spanish, but i get what your saying. Thanks. Bruce

    Like

    • hoxton spanish tutor info says :

      Dear Bruce

      I am glad you enjoy Guantanamera’s music and the lyrics, both of which have transcended time and I feel they are very pertinent today.

      I have visited your blog and, coincidentally, I am working on a new post about the views of a Latin American writer on Ecology and Finance. I found your blog very inspiring. Thank you.

      Adrián

      Liked by 1 person

  13. patriciaruthsusan says :

    Thank you. I have always love the song “Guantanamera”. It’s one of the lovliest pieces I’ve ever heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Shery Alexander Heinis says :

    This is a very informative post. I learned “guantanamera” in high school, although the words began “yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crece la palma…” The title words are from the language of the tainos (I believe we call them “Arawaks” in the English-speaking Caribbean”)? I did not know that. Anyway, a very interesting piece on a Cuban/Caribbean classic.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. paulettemotzko says :

    I love that song, along with many others….I grew up in a very musical house with a music room and I play and teach piano and write music. …haven’t taught here in Vegas yet, as I am busy writing SEO web contents for companies here in Las Vegas, Nevada.
    It’s great to meet you Hugo Isa. That’s your name, right?
    Did you grow up listening to Herb Alert and the Tijuana Brass with songs like that and Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Perfidia, Spanish Eyes etc. ….

    Paulette Le Pore Motzko

    Like

    • hoxton spanish tutor info says :

      Dear Paulette, you do bring old memories 😉

      My name is Adrian Sánchez, no Hugo.

      I still remember Lonely Bull, Spanish Flea, Perfidia, Spanish eyes, to name a few. It feels far away and long ago now. Certainly music to love and remember, like Guantanamera.

      Music is so important in our lives and such an useful tool when learning/teaching a language. I have been looking at a Cuban song of which I am tempted to write a blog: The Peanut Vendor, in Spanish: El Manisero. I bet you like Cuban Dance, Danza Cubana.

      Thank you and keep in touch.

      Adrián

      Liked by 1 person

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