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Album: The World Of Pete SeegerReleased: 1962
"Guantanamera" is Spanish for "Guantanamo," a city on the southeast tip of Cuba where the notorious Guantánamo Bay military base/detention camp is located. The United States has leased the area under a treaty signed in 1903, but the song has nothing to do with it.
The refrain "guajira Guantanamera" means "peasant girl from Guantanamo." A Cuban bandleader named Joseito Fernandez had a radio show in the 1930s called "La Guántanamera," and he regularly performed the song, changing the verse lyrics every time to be about whatever he felt like talking about - only the "guajira Guantanamera" part remained constant.
Later, a Cuban musician named Julián Orbón (1925-1991) put lyrics to the song based on a poem written by the Cuban writer Jose Marti (1853-1895). The poem is about a girl from Guantanamo and was written from the point of view of a Cuban revolutionary.
Orbón was a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, where Hector Angulo, a student from Santa Clara, Cuba, was attending on scholarship. Angulo learned the song from Orbón, and In July 1962, Angulo played it for Pete Seeger when both were attending the Folk Festival of the Catskills in upstate New York (the festival was part of a camp where Angulo was working as a counselor for the summer). Seger loved it and began performing the song. In October that year, the Cuban Missile Crisis riveted the nation as the Soviet Union threatened to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. With this backdrop, the song became a peace anthem of sorts, not because it had anything to do with peace, but because it was a Cuban song with a catchy chorus that some Americans actually knew.
The song grew in popularity, and cover versions started to appear in America. It became a hit in 1966 when a Los Angeles folk trio called The Sandpipers recorded a version that hit #7 in the UK and #9 in the US.
The song is made of two parts which do not have any relation whatsoever:
Part 1 - In the 19th century, an anonymous popular song circulates with the words "guarija guantanamera," which means peasant-woman from Guantanamo. It was collected and arranged in 1932 by Joseito Fernandez, who made it the hallmark of his orchestra and popularized it as a dance called "Guajira-son," which he used in place of "Bolero" in closing every ball. "La Guajira" is therefore the name of a dance too.
Part 2 - It's not before 1958 that Julian Orbon combined this popular refrain with some quatrains taken at random from the immense poem Versos Sencillos (simple verses) by Jose Marti. It commences with, "Yo soy un ombre sincero," but you have to wait for hundreds of verses before finding: "Con los pobres de la tierra." At last words well in line with the acclaimed Seeger -Guthrie protest song style. Marti never mentioned any Guajira from Guantanamo in those verses. As in many popular songs, you can't find any logical link between the verses and the refrain. (thanks, Denis - Paris, France)
Many versions of this song have sprung up over the years. Celia Cruz did a salsa rendition in 1966; José Feliciano covered it in 1969, and Joan Baez did her version in 1974.
The only version to chart in America besides The Sandpipers' was by Wyclef Jean with the Refugee Allstars. This one made #62 in 1997. The song has also been recorded by Pitbull
and Sage The Gemini
In the '90s, but song became a popular chant among English soccer fans, often used in tribute to a star player with the lyrics suitably altered. It was most often sung in honor of Alan Shearer, sung as, "One Alan Shearer... There's only one Alan Shearer."
In Sweden, they're serious about recycling, and in 2003 the government launched the "Pantamera" campaign to encourage the practice, with a song set to the tune of "Guantanamera."
"Panta Mera" means "recycle more" in Swedish; public service announcements often played on TV encouraging citizens to return used bottles and reduce waste. Many variations of the song have been used (here's one
), which has made the tune very popular in the country.