"Guantanamera" may be Cuba's most successful export since sugar. Inside the country, it's an unofficial anthem, while abroad it's one of the most recognizable symbols of the Communist island nation.
The song's refrain, “guajira Guantanamera,” means “country girl from Guantanamo.” More than 80 years old, the song has traveled from its roots in rural Cuba to airwaves and recordings around the world. It first became famous via a Havana singer named Joseito Fernandez, who performed it on his radio show starting in the 1930s.
The song is not actually about that country girl — that's just a catchy refrain. But if you don't know the rest of the words, that's okay. Peter Manuel, an ethnomusicologist and expert on the song, says Joseito didn't either — he made them up every week to fit with current events, like “some political scandal or the price of sugar.”
“He would compose on the news of the day, and they would be witty and clever, and that would be the main point of it,” Manuel says.
But about the time of the Cuban revolution, Spanish-born Cuban composer Julian Orbon's musical mashup replaced those perpetually changing lyrics with verses by the 19th century independence hero Jose Marti. The new version caught on, and soon, everyone in Cuba was singing it.
A recording in the archives of the Norman Studer Collection at the State University of New York in Albany captured the moment Guantanamera went global, on July 15, 1962. Hector Angulo, a Cuban music student who later became a celebrated composer, played Guantanamera for the American folk singer Pete Seeger at a festival in upstate New York. Seeger loved it.
“It's a beautiful song,” he said at the time. “And it's the kind which a lot of people up here could sing because it has a chorus which is not too difficult. I'd love to learn it.”
Seeger did more than learn it. He played it live at Carnegie Hall, recorded it on a hit album, and taught audiences all over the US to sing along.
A vocal group called the Sandpipers picked it up from him, and their version went to number 9 in the US, picking up three Grammy nominations along the way. The album was eventually released on five continents — the 1960s equivalent of going viral.
Since then, Guantanamera has been recorded hundreds of times, by everyone from Celia Cruz to Jackson Browne to Los Lobos to Pitbull to the Fugees and Wyclef Jean.
There are versions from Greece, Paraguay and a disco version by the “Soviet Sinatra,” Muslim Magonaev. A girl group in Osaka performed a Japanese version on YouTube.
After the US began extraterritorial detention of accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, the song's geographical reference inspired inevitable protest versions. One recorded by GNU/Linux operating system developer and software activist Richard Stallman switches out that country girl for a prisoner at the US camp.
“It's a very catchy melody, and anyone can sing the refrain. All you need to know is 'guajira Guantanamera' or some syllables that sound like that,” Manuel says.
Or, indeed, some that don't sound like that at all.
Andy Lawn, author of a book on British football chants, says that Guantanamera has been a classic in the stands of England for decades — refitted with an ever-changing set of lyrics to cheer or chasten players on the field.
“It’s massively popular. It's probably, I would say, the most popular tune that you hear in English football grounds up and down the country.” Lawn says he heard it three or four times at a recent Norwich game against Manchester City — “and that was just at that one game.”
The Guantanamera refrain is an ideal canvas for football fans' insults because its structure is so easily adapted, Lawn says.
“It can be anything from 'you're getting sacked in the morning, sacked in the morning,' to 'your support isn't very good' — only less polite — 'who ate all the pies,'” he says. “It's just adapted and adapted so many times but the tune is always the same.”
It's been reused so many times and in so many different ways, it's perhaps appropriate that this unofficial anthem of Cuba has become an official anthem — for recycling.
In 2004, Sweden's Pantamera recycling authority turned Guantanamera into its official jingle and sponsored a series of songs using the tune to go with their name, which means “deposit more,” Pantamera spokesperson Katarina Lundell says. It's become so popular that few know it's originally a Cuban song.
“Children believe it's a song written and made by Pantamera,” she says.
Swedish rappers O-Hund and Third Eye with Antonio D won the agency's 2013 song contest to produce their song “Pantman Anthem.” Their music video features plastic bottles dancing to the recycling bin — and Joseito's world-famous Cuban refrain.