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Cuban Music Lesson: Guaracha

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.

Cuba has a rich tradition of popular theater going back to the days when the Spanish were around making everyone eat tapas all the time. The zarzuela, the trova, and the danzonette were all popular musical theater styles back in the 19th century. The guaracha came out of this theater world and went on to become one of Cuba’s most celebrated musical styles. You know when a song comes out for a movie or a Broadway show, and it becomes popular in its own right? That’s what happened to the guaracha.

The Guaracha is known for its fast rhythms and bawdy slang-filled lyrics. This is due mainly to its origins in the Cuban theatrical style of bufo. Basically, bufo is a descendant of the Italian commedia del’arte, but with bigger thighs from eating too much arroz con pollo. There are stock characters like the idiot, the hustler, the wisecracking maid, or the old man who farts a lot. You know, just like Shakespeare. The plots usually derive from the everyday life of the poor sucker in Havana trying to deal with rich jerks. They were also highly satirical of the government. During the Cuban war of independence, Spanish forces massacred entire auditoriums of theater goers at anti-Spanish bufos. Still, people came because who doesn’t love fart jokes with their political satire? The guaracha became the musical style of choice for the musical interludes in the comedies. The guaracha soon transitioned to Havana’s other well known form of entertainment: brothels. If you went to a house of ill repute in the 19th and early 20th century, instead of thumping hip hop you would have heard guaracha. A lot of the great musicians like Benny More, Bola De Nieve, Perez Prado, and La Sonora Matancera all started out playing guarachas in whorehouses. Not bad work if you can get it.

Today, the guaracha is still performed by the big bands and the occasional salsa singer. Willie Colon, Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, and Albita Rodriguez have all recorded guarachas on their albums. Bufo is still popular in both Miami and Havana, though in Havana they aren’t allowed to make fun of the government. Too bad, because a bawdy song about Fidel’s beard and Raul’s mustache having a fight would probably be hilarious.

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