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Cuban Music Lesson: Joseito Fernandez

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

Go to any Cuban party, wedding, restaurant, cultural event, or just a Sunday playing dominoes. Pay attention to the songs, and sooner or later one of them will be “Guantanamera.” It is the most famous Cuban song ever and is as unavoidable as “Stairway to Heaven” on a classic rock station. This author has 8, count ‘um 8, different versions on my Mp3 player. You’d think all of us Cubans would be sick of it by now, and yet whenever one of those 8 versions comes on, I listen to it. It’s been written into our chromosomes. When our father’s sperm swim up the fallopian tube to our mom’s egg, they are doing a water ballet to “Guantanamera”. The man who wrote this classic is largely forgotten in the United States but is remembered with love in Cuba. He is the great Joseito Fernandez. Respeto.

Joseito was born in Havana in 1908 into poverty in the capitol’s Los Sitios neighborhood. This was before free education in Cuba, and Joseito like most broke ass Cubans received a very rudimentary education. His schooling was in the oral singing tradition of decimas on the mean streets of Havana. A decima is a song with improvised lyrics and a common refrain. It goes back to an improvisational song style the Yoruba and Bantu people brought over from Africa. It was the freestyle rap of the day, but with less guns being drawn or guys saying, “Yo, Yo, check it, one, two, one two.” In his twenties, Joseito began singing his decimas with the bands that were coming into popularity in the 20’s. He adopted a pimpin’ signature style of white linen pants, saddle shoes, a white long-sleeve guayabera, and a big straw hat. He was the fliest dude on the scene. Joseito wrote many great songs, but none had the impact of “Guantanamera.” A Guantanamera is a girl from Guantanamo. This was before Guantanamo was known as a place where you store terrorists.

Joseito would improvise the lyrics to “Guantanamera”, so you got a different song each time he sang it. In the 60’s he teamed up with American folky Pete Seeger, and fused the song with Jose Marti’s “Versos Sencillos”. Jose Marti is like the Cuban George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Walt Whitman all rolled into one. His “Versos Sencillos” was written in a decimas style, so you can sing the entire book to the tune of “Guantanamera”. It can and does go on forever, just like Joseito’s legacy. Plus, 80 years after he came up with his look, it is still friggin’ awesome.

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