Musical flavours!

Cuba’s anthem by popular demand!

During my years working as a DJ on the “Latin Music & Dance Circuit” in London, I was invited by a radio producer to contribute and be part of a series of music programmes commissioned for  the BBC.  The series was called “Songlines” and focused each week on a song that has become  an “anthem” for a particular country. The well known Cuban song “Guantanamera” was the subject of one such episode, and along with a selection of other people (including the MP Tony Benn), I was asked to give my opinion on the popularity of this song.  A collage of ideas emerged in the resulting programme that conjured up an evocative picture of Cuba past and present, which sticks in my mind with this haunting melody.

As your aircraft touches down, palm trees come into view swaying in a warm sea breeze. The doors open letting the heat and sun pour into your nostril. Almost simultaneously the simple chords of Guantanamera begin to seep into your unconscious!! Rum, Cigars, fresh coffee roasting, sea sun and music are abundant in this island of  shortages!

Most people I have met can’t remember when or where they first heard “Guantanamera” but everyone knows the tune and can hum along to the chorus. The melody is a simple one and adapts easily to new verses that are invented and improvised by the musicians on the spot to accompany the situation or comment on current affairs. The repetitive chorus makes it easy to join in with; “Guantanamera Guajira Guantanamera Guantanameeeeeeera Guajira Guantanameeeera..”  It has a haunting, romantic sound filled with promise and patriotic undertones, and the stylistic variations I have heard would surprise you!

Joseito Fernandez takes credit for “composing” the song in the 1940s, but the truth of the matter is; he set the words of Jose Marti’s famous poem that every school child learns by heart to the music of Guantanamera, thus he politicised it and made it famous in Cuba. “Yo soy un hombre sincero, de donde crece la palma, y antes de morirme, quiero hechar mis versos del alma……..”  (I am a sincere man, from where the palm tree grows and before I die I want to free  the verses of my soul) The poem “Versos Sencillos” by the most famous revolutionary in Cuba’s history, Jose Marti, a poem he wrote when in exile in North America pining for his homeland . Each verse has four lines and Marti wrote many poems in this form. Marti returned to Cuba to lead the liberating battle for a Cuba independent from Spain in which alas he died in the early stages!  Like all good revolutionary icons his death increased his popularity and he was declared national poet. His image is displayed on every one peso note of moneda nacional. He is seen in every town and village on the island, every school and police office proudly display his bust and no offices of the CDR would be complete without an image of Marti and a Cuban flag.  He was an intellectual and philosopher who might have been better off writing poems than riding his horse into battle with Maceo and his revolutionaries in the mountains

Outside of Cuba Guantanamera was put in the spot light by Pete Seeger in the 1970s and in the UK another version hit the top 20 and from there it has had more or less world exposure.There seems to be no end to the different versions that exist of this song once you start looking!


The rhythm of the song is known as Guajira and this word  also means “a country girl”, so “Guantanamera Guajira” is “a country girl from Guananemo”, its a love song! The rhythm is typical of the countryside and musicians throughout the island continue their traditions to this day, repeating and inventing verses with other words of a non political nature at fiestas and other celebrations. The average Cuban is not a fan of political songs and is far more likely to be singing the merits of the beauty of their sweet hearts and the moonlight on the sea on a quiet summer night with romance and love in the air.

So “Why do they sing it to tourists?” Well that’s because Cuban see it as a national anthem, they like it, they identify with it and they know that there is a good chance that the tourists know and like it too. Even if the occasional tourist has never heard Guantanamera before the chorus is so repetitive and simple they will quickly be able to hum along and feel welcome. Cuba might not have many material comforts to offer but the hearts of the people are open and welcoming to all who take the opportunity to visit this unique island which has a world to itself!

Join us on holiday this year!
“A Cuban Snapshot” 7 days tour

“Mi Cubita” 14 days tour

Some lovely versions of Guantanamera  on You Tube by Los Sabandenos and by the Queen of Salsa herself Celia Cruz

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