"Guantanamera" ("girl from Guantánamo") is perhaps the best known Cuban song and that country's most noted patriotic song.
The music for the song is regularly attributed to José Fernández Diaz, known as Joseíto Fernández, who claimed to have written it at various dates (consensus puts as its year of origin), and who used it regularly in one of his radio programs. Some American researchers[who?] claim that the song's structure actually came from Herminio "El Diablo" García Wilson, who should be credited as a co-composer. García's heirs took the matter to court decades later but lost the case: the Supreme Court of Cuba credited Fernández as the sole composer of the music in Regardless of either claim, Fernández can safely be claimed as being the first public promoter of the song, through his radio programs.
As written by José Fernández, the original lyrics to the song relate to a woman from Guantánamo, with whom he had a romantic relationship, and who eventually left him. The alleged real story behind these lyrics (or at least one of many versions of the song's origin that Fernández suggested during his lifetime) is that she did not have a romantic interest in him, but merely a platonic one. If the details are to be believed, she had brought him a steak sandwich one day as a present to the radio station where he worked. He stared at some other woman (and attempted to flirt with her) while eating the sandwich, and his friend yanked it out of his hands in disgust, cursed him and left. He never saw her again. These words are rarely sung today.
The history behind the chorus and its lyrics ("Guantanamera … / Guajira Guantanamera …") is similar: García was at a street corner with a group of friends, and made a courteous pass (a piropo, in Spanish) to a woman (who also happened to be from Guantánamo) who walked by the group. She answered back rather harshly, offended by the pass. Stunned, he could not take his mind off her reaction while his friends made fun of him; later that day, sitting at a piano with his friends near him, he wrote the song's main refrain.
Use as social "newspaper"
Given the song's musical structure, which fits A-B-A-B (sometimes A-B-B-A) octosyllabic verses, "Guantanamera" lent itself from the beginning to impromptu verses, improvised on the spot, similar to what happens with the Mexican folk classic "La Bamba". Fernández's first use of the song was precisely this; he would comment on daily events on his radio program by adapting them to the song's melody, and then using the song as a show closer. Through this use, "Guantanamera" became a popular vehicle for romantic, patriotic, humorous, or social commentary lyrics, in Cuba and elsewhere in the Spanish speaking world.
Adaptation from the "Versos Sencillos" by José Martí
The better known "official" lyrics are based on the first stanza of the first poem of the collection "Versos Sencillos" ("Simple Verses") by Cuban nationalist poet and independence hero José Martí, as adapted by Julián Orbón. Word has it that Orbón considered Martí's poems as fitting, and thus dignifying, to such a popular song. Given Martí's significance to the Cuban people, the use of his poem in the song virtually elevated it to unofficial anthem status in the country.
Ambiguity in the lyrics
In the original lyrics, the author referred to a guajira guantanamera (a peasant girl from Guantánamo), but since the song itself is structured as a guajira (the Cuban rhythm, named after Cuban peasants), some people (erroneously) think that the chorus refers to the song itself (or rather its rhythmic structure), and not to an individual. In other words, the words are interpreted as an introduction to a "guajira, Guantánamo-style". This has essentially guaranteed that the chorus' lyrics still be used to this day, as evidenced by their use along with the (seemingly) unrelated Martí verses.
Below are the lyrics based on the poem by Martí; as described above, many other versions exist.
|Spanish language||English language|
Yo soy un hombre sincero
I am an honest man
Mi verso es de un verde claro
My verse is a clear(light) green
This third verse of "Versos Sencillos" is usually not part of the song
Cultivo una rosa blanca
I cultivate a white rose
Y para el cruel que me arranca
And for the cruel one who would tear out
Final verse of song, as published:
Con los pobres de la tierra
With the poor people of the earth
Wyclef Jean version
"Guantanamera" was recorded as a cover version by Wyclef Jean, released as the second single from his debut solo album The Carnival. It features vocals by Celia Cruz and Lauryn Hill raps on the track.
"Guantanamera" entered the UK chart at #25, its highest chart position, and spent two weeks on the chart. The song also charted in Switzerland and Sweden. Copies of the CD single were shipped with a remix of Wyclef's previous track, "We Trying to Stay Alive".
Selected list of cover versions
Wyclef Jean, Refugee All Stars - Guantanamera