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.
This version of Guantanamera is a vast collaboration of no less than 75 Cuban recording artists. It was produced by Playing for Change . They recorded and produced this track with Jackson Browne, who stated that travelling 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.
The Simple Verses are rich in profound and colourful symbolism . 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.
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. 
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.
Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera, 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).
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.
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 El Suceso del Día 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.
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.
In time, this song was destined to become an unofficial anthem of Cuba.
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”.
 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.
 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.
 Free translation.
Tags: Cuba, guajira guantanamera, Guantanamera, Jackson Browne, José Martí, Joseíto Fernández, Julián Orbón, Latin America, Latin American culture, Latin American music, Learning in context, Mark Johnson, Peter Seeger, Playing for Change, Poemas sencillos, rosa blanca, Simple Poems, taínos, The Sandpippers, We Shall Overcome, Whitney Kroenke
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