Feral, Catchy Guantanamo Party Music Captured For the First Time on Album
Imagine a world with no screens. Where after work, instead of obsessively spending an hour or two on Instagram, you went home and picked up an instrument. And when your neighbors across the way heard the song, instead of filming thirty seconds of it and posting it on Instagram, they joined you and started dancing. And then somebody brought a bottle of rum, and then even in the 110-degree, global warming-era heat, there was a party.
That’s what the new triple album Changüí: The Sound of Guantanamo – streaming at Bandcamp – sounds like, in Cuban Spanish. It’s a party in a box: three and a half hours of wild, rustic, funny, deviously innuendo-laced, historically rich music, played mostly by a bunch of jangly local acoustic pickup bands who have never been recorded before. Which is no surprise, considering that much of their part of the island didn’t have electric power before the 1990s – and explains why this material sounds as feral as it does.
Changui music has been appropriated by salsa bands for decades. In the wild, it sounds like son montuno with a more straightforwardly shuffling beat, although that rhythm is stretched to all kinds of new places here. Tres players show off their fretboard skills in long, careening, spiky solos. Singers trade battle rhymes, or endless rounds of call-and-response over an undulating groove from a simple marímbula rhythm box and bongo beats with a contrasting, labyrinthine, shamanic complexity.
Like salsa and blues, the repertoire is self-referential and self-reverential. Innumerable stars from local scenes are remembered in these songs, along with their descendants, who play their songs now and big-up themselves. One of the most compelling bands on this album is an all-female crew haphazardly assembled when the bandleader’s regular lineup was unavailable – and her subs turned out to be incredibly amped for the performances.
It’s normal to be suspicious of westerners who go into formerly colonized parts of the world and emerge with what they claim is new evidence of a previously undiscovered tradition. What is not in doubt is that Italian musicologist Gianluca Tramontana went into Cuba in 2017, hoping to score enough found sounds for a NPR piece. Two years later, he came back to the US with hours and hours of field recordings, distilled into this box set with a 124-page booklet including Spanish lyrics, plus some pretty good English translations. For non-native Spanish speakers, the vocals are much easier to understand than you might assume: the cheat sheet is a welcome bonus.
It would take another 124-page book to chronicle all the sounds on the record. Typically, the tres clangs and pings, shedding overtones almost like a twelve-string or Portuguese guitar. The spirits are invoked, bandleaders assert themselves as kings of the mic and the party, as the groove pulses from stark to frenetic and back. The lyrics can be suggestive, or snide – one of the funniest songs here is a dis aimed at a real princess of a girl – and also political. Several numbers reference the freedom fighters battling Spanish conquistadors in the 1890s.
There’s a haunting, delicately slashing minor-key number accusing vintage salsa bandleader Juan Formell of stealing the Guantanamo sound: after all these years, the sting still seems fresh. Singer Francisco “Mikikí” Hernández Valiente distinguishes himself with his gritty, impassioned style. Tres player Yoemnis “Sensei” Tabernas lives up to his nickname, and then some. Likewise, fast-fingered Pedro Vera, leader of Grupo Familia Vera, validates his claim as “El rey del diapasón.”
Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo are the band best known outside of Cuba here: they’ve toured the US and played New Orleans Jazzfest. The all-female Las Flores del Changüí are represented mostly by ringers who are very good.
Grupo Estrellas Campesinas and their tragically, recently deceased founder Armando “Yu” Rey Leliebre contribute strongly here, along with Grupo El Guajiro Y Su Changüí, Mikikí y su Changüí, Mikiki’s brother Melquiades y su Changüí plus a multi-brother extravaganza and the unrelated Popó y su Changüí.
There are also a couple of playful lyrical battles between Celso Fernández Rojas a.k.a. El Guajiro and José Andrés Rodríguez Ramírez, better known as “El Sinsonte,” backed by Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo. One can only imagine how much more material there might be in Tramontana’s archive that didn’t make it onto this album.