Cuba: Guajira Guantanamera

The Guajira-son (Cuban popular song) known as La Guantanamera is famous the world over. The origin of its universal success.

It hit the international airwaves in the 1960s, gaining the popularity it enjoyed on a national level in Cuba in the 1930s, and became one of those mysterious phenomena that sometimes occur in popular music. It has been recorded by the most popular Cuban musicians and innumerable foreign artists and has become a second national anthem.

Its creator, Joseíto Fernández (1908-1977), is an emblematic and much-loved figure of Cuban popular music. He played all musical genres but was a sonero (pop singer) par excellence, with an expressive and distinctive voice and a style that earned him the name “King of melody”. Joseíto also had the typical appearance of a creole; this was part of his public image, perfectly integrated with his everyday life.

He always wore white and was impeccably dressed in his two-tone shoes, wide trousers, typical creole blouse and wide-brimmed hat, whether on the stage or in the streets sharing in the life of his people.

In his music Joseíto reflected the dignity and sacrifices of his humble origins. His quadruplets expressed his love for his mother and his family. All this won him the affection and sympathy of the people, who looked on him as a good son, a kind father and a good friend.

The famous Guantanamera was born while Joseíto was singing with the Ribeiro orchestra, around 1935. They played in a radio programme, earning next to nothing: it was a chance to make themselves known. At the end of each transmission Joseíto would sing a popular song, improvising new words every day. He was in a relationship with a woman from Guantanamo who brought him sweets and waited for him at the end of the programme.

The pair had argued and one evening Joseíto dedicated a stanza to the girl that dollowed “Guantanamera, peasant girl guantanamera”. They got back together and the song made such an impression on listeners that they began to phone the studio to request it. The same thing happened in the dance halls where Joseíto performed. It was the public that gave the song the title Guajira guantanamera.

Sometime later, the well-known female singer La Calandria asked if the song could accompany the crime news programme ‘Event of the Day’. Joseíto was hired for the programme and it had immediate success, and continued to be broadcast for many years. The public did not call it ‘Event of the Day’ but simply ‘La Guantanamera’. “They will sing you the Guantanamera” became a common warning to those in sentimental or other kinds of trouble. The news programme undoubtedly took advantage of this triumph, but also contributed to making the song hugely popular.

The fame of Guajira guantanamera overshadowed the rest of Joseíto Fernández’ fairly extensive production. It even led some to believe that the singer came from the eastern Guantanamo region of Cuba. He clarified this point during a historic conversation with Benny Moré, an emblematic figure in Cuban music known as “The Wildman of rhythm”, who popularised Joseíto’s Elige tú que canto yo.

The artist was habanero by descent and was born and lived until his death in the central Los Sitios neighbourhood of Havana. In 1967 the renowned North American singer, composer, and folklorist Pete Seeger recorded La Guantanamera using some of the ‘Simple Verses’ of the Cuban national hero José Marti. There is much controversy over who first had the idea of setting Marti’s poem to the famous musical motif, but there can be no doubt that from that point on it became a universal success.

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