History of Guajira
Guajira is a musical style native to Cuba, rooted in Spanish folklore and the Canary Islands. The lyrics of the Guajira are characterized by their stanza composition of 10 octosyllabic verses.
Unlike other Cuban dances such as Salsa or Cha Cha Cha, lyrics are the basis of Guajira, the melody afterwards. However, the rhythm of the Guajira is very rhythmic and the songs are a real invitation to the dance.
Of peasant origin, the Guajira evokes the countryside in a bucolic way, life in the fields and sugar cane of Cuba and love stories.
Origins of Guajira
The word “Guajiro” means “Peasant” in Cuba, or anyone who works or lives in rural areas. The Guajira is therefore a musin of peasant origin and the first composer of this musical style would be Cuban Jorge Ankerman to whom we owe “El arroyo murmura” in 1899.
But the Cuban Guajira has its roots also in Spain since the Spanish Guajira, or Punto Guajiro, existed in the 18th century and had spread in the Canary Islands with the use of guitar and timple, two string instruments that the we find in Cuban music.
Many Spanish immigrants have settled in the eastern part of the island of Cuba, working in sugar cane, coffee or tobacco fields, sometimes mixing with natives and black African slaves. This rural population formed what were called “guajiros”.
Among these Spaniards, whole families arrived from the Canary Islands with their songs performed with acute and nasal voices, accompanied by guitars, bandurrias, timples and other stringed instruments.
The Guajiros loved to sing and dance, having inherited this style of entertainment from their ancestors who danced the Séguédille, Petenera, Rondeña and Fandango. They would adapt these songs and folk dances to the realities of Cuba, developing new rhythms and melodies.
These rhythms and melodies come from the interbreeding with the African dances of the black slaves that the Guajiros cottoyaient, using instruments peculiar to these like the percussion instruments that are the congas, the bongos and the cencerro. To these instruments, the groups interpreting the Guajira will then incorporate the trumpets and the double bass.
Evolution of Guajira
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cuba already has several groups of Guajira that spread this style of music from rural folklore throughout the island. These groups include the “Cuarteto de Trovadores Cubanos”, the “Bando Rojo”, the “Trio Ariguanabo”, the “Bando Lila”, the group “Fortín del Sol”, the “Bando Tricolor” or the “Trio Espirituano” .
Benito Antonio Fernández Ortiz, better known as Ñico Saquito, is one of the first great composers of Guajira. He began his career in the 1920s by composing Guarachas relating his personal life or events of daily life. One of his best-known songs is “Al Vaivén de mi carreta”, a sentimental walk about life in the fields and the difficulties of peasant life. Other songs like “Cuidado compay gallo”, “Maria Cristina me quiere gobernar” or “Adiós compay gato” will be remembered.
Eduardo Saborit Pérez, born May 14, 1911 in Campechuela, joined very young Campechuela municipal orchestra in which his father played. He will study music and become one of the greatest Cuban composers. He is the author of Guajiras, well known as “La Guayabera”, “Cuba, qué linda es Cuba” or Conozca Cuba Primero “.
The songs of Eduardo Saborit and other composers of Guajiras will make themselves known quickly in Cuba through radio programs such as RHC Cadena Azul, CMQ, Radio Mambí or Radio Cadena Habana, these radios allowing Cubans to listen to the songs of Justo Vega, Patricio Lastra, Chanito Isidron, Nena Cruz, Orlando Vasallo, Miguel Alfonso Pozo, Rigoberto Rizo, Jose Marichal, Adolfo Alfonso or Jesús Orta Ruiz nicknamed “Indio Naborí”.
In 1928 a young cuban of about twenty years, Jose Fernández Díaz nicknamed “Joseíto Fernández”, will make himself known on the radio of Guantánamo singing one of his compositions that will certainly become the most famous Guajira in the world: “Guantanamera”.
It was also in 1928 that Cuban guitarist Guillermo Portabales made his debut on CMHI radio, performing songs by Tango, Bolero and Son until he realized that listeners preferred Guajira. He will then work on this musical genre by naming it “Guajira de salon”.
Guillermo Portabales will spend two years in Puerto Rico between 1937 and 1939, then return to Cuba before touring Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and the United States. He will eventually return to Puerto Rico in 1953 to reside there permanently. His best-known songs are “El carretero”, “Nostalgia guajira”, “Cuando salí de Cuba” and “Cumbiamba”.
In 1947 a duo composed by Celina González and Reutilio Domínguez, the duo Celina & Reutilio, made their debut on CMKR radio in Santiago de Cuba, then went to Havana in 1948 to sing on Radio Cadena Suaritos.
They will sing “A Santa Bárbara” also known as “Que viva Changó”, a Guaracha who immediately has a lot of success thanks to a style that merges more with African music.
Celina & Reutilio become the best representatives of Guajira in Cuba and even travel to the United States to sing at the Puerto Rico Theater in New York, then in the Dominican Republic where their songs were already broadcast by CMKR radio.
In Cuba, the couple will sing in many radio and television programs, but also in big cabarets like the legendary Tropicana of Havana.
In 1956, they record a disc with one of the most prestigious orchestras of the island, the Orquesta Sensación, and their songs circulate rapidly throughout the Caribbean, especially in Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
In the 1960s, Guajira gradually lost its importance against the competition of other Cuban music such as Salsa. It will reappear in the late 1990s when the American guitarist Ry Cooder decides to gather several old glories of Cuban music to recreate the legendary Buena Vista Social Club.
The group recreated with musicians and singers of Son cubano, Bolero, Guajira and Salsa will enthuse the whole world who will discover the talents of Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Pío Leyva, and Juan de Marcos González. many others.
Dancing the Guajira
Traditionally, the Guajira is danced with a fan in hand and the “zapateo” typical of the Spanish Flamenco, created with the tip and the heel of the shoes of the dancers, will bring the rhythm.
The rhythm of the Guajira alternates between 6/8 and 3/4 as in the Spanish Soleá, but the characteristic silence of the latter does not exist.
But for the Cuban dance specialists, the Guajira is not dancing even if some will talk to you about Bachata Guajira or Merengue Guajira. In this case, the Guajira would be rather danced on the rhythm of a Cha Cha Cha.
In the video below, we will discover how to dance Guarija by following the instructions and movements of the dancer.