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Cuban Music Lesson: Musica Guajira

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.

If you’ve been reading these posts, you might think all Cuban music comes from the big band era of the 20’s to the 50’s. But it isn’t all Havana night clubs and mojito-fueled gropings in the back of ’57 Chevys. There is another current that comes straight out of the sugar cane fields. We are talking about musica guajira.

A guajiro is a person from the countryside. The word is synonymous with the Puerto Rican jivaro and the Spanish palurdo. These guys are the poor farm workers that spend most of their day cutting sugar cane. Let’s face it, their lives suck. Wake up at dawn, drive your cart to the fields, spend 10 hours hacking caña with a machete, take the cane to the mill, get paid crap, go home to your bohio (hut). That is the sucktastic life a guajiro. When they do have time to relax, it involves a bottle of rum and a song. Mostly the rum, though. They would gather at someone’s hut to sing about how much their lives sucked. The genre these guajiros developed over time is a sing-along style of music called punto guajiro.

Punto guajiro is a simple guitar-based style that usually evokes life in the countryside. The structure is always the same: the first line is repeated twice, followed by a couplet. After this was performed, everyone would join in for the chorus. These lyrics are largely improvised, like freestyle rap but with less gun violence. We’ll make one up now:

Todo los dias yo escribo por Tu Vez,

Todo los dias yo escribo por Tu Vez,

Enseñando chicas y videos

Pa’ tu gastar tiempo en tu trabajo .

Probably the most famous son guajiro is La Guantanamera. The song was written by Joseito Fernandez, and is the best known Cuban song of all time. The lyrics are usually lines from Jose Marti’s poetry. Marti is considered the father of Cuban independence. He is our George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but with more of a receding hair line. One of his most famous works was Versos Sencillos, which is written in the style of the guajiro songs. You can also improvise lyrics, meaning that a rendition of Guantanamera can go on for hours. Once again, the rum helps.

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