‘If the world explodes, the one survivors shall be cockroaches and Cubans!’: the Guantánamo musicians defying the island’s disaster

‘If the world explodes, the one survivors shall be cockroaches and Cubans!’: the Guantánamo musicians defying the island’s disaster

It’s 1.30am and the band El Guajiro y su Changüí, led by freestyling lyricist Celso Fernández, are cooking on all burners. They’re onstage at an open-roofed venue within the metropolis of Guantánamo in Cuba – simply 20 miles from the notorious US-owned jail in Guantánamo Bay – and enjoying changüí, the area’s hyperlocal music. Changüí is reportedly a mashup of a Congolese phrase that means “leap for pleasure” and the Guantánamo slang for “occasion”, and positive sufficient, that is a few of the most exuberant, party-starting music possible.

Changüí just isn’t for spectators – anyone will be a part of the present. Havana star Elito Revé all of a sudden jumps on stage and joins in on the scraped-metal guayo and vocals, quickly adopted by Yarima Blanco, a hotshot on the guitar-like tres. On the primary day of the eleventh version of the pageant Changüí Elio Revé Matos – named after Elito’s father – these musicians, performing for a nine-judge panel in a contest, are enjoying changüí the best way it’s been carried out for greater than 150 years. For the following three days and nights in late June, the entire metropolis of Guantánamo will come alive with music, and greater than 20 principally native teams will play a number of occasions a day.

However immediately’s Guantánamo may be very completely different to the one I left behind in 2019, after spending shut to a few years recording these teams “in situ” and writing a photograph guide. The lack of tourism throughout Covid depleted the island, together with Trump’s 2021 reinstatement of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which has significantly restricted the stream of cash out and in.

Although sanctions had been barely eased by Joe Biden in Might, Cuba continues to be deep in disaster. There is no such thing as a medication and quite a few hospitals have closed. Meals is usually left within the floor as vans don’t have sufficient petrol to ship it into the cities. The peso is devalued and inflation is rampant – a half kilo of beans prices three days pay or extra for many Cubans, together with the musicians. Energy cuts of between 4 and 16 hours a day are frequent (though fortunately not in the course of the pageant). Greater than 4% of the island’s inhabitants have left since 2022, together with a few of the musicians and dancers, and a few teams couldn’t make the pageant amid worries about there not being sufficient meals to feed all of them.

“However we’re resilient and we are going to get by way of it,” says changüí historian Gabriel Rojas Perez. “If the world explodes, the one survivors shall be cockroaches and Cubans.”

Days of continuous revelry … a parade by way of Guantánamo. {Photograph}: Gianluca Tramontana

Changüí is likely one of the oldest musical varieties in Cuba: a rural, riff-based, call-and-response, largely improvised homegrown dance music that got here out of the plantations across the mid- to late-1800s. Rural communities would collect after per week working the plantations to sing and dance from Friday to Monday morning, and even longer on holidays. The music trickled into town with migrating farmers within the early 1900s. Then, like blues, it unfold throughout the nation within the postwar years, after Elio Revé modified up the instrumentation and moved to Havana, seeping it into numerous Cuban music from Buena Vista Social Membership to Los Van Van.

Till the mid-Forties changüí was rural music, with no official teams, till composer and musicologist Rafael Inciarte Brioso cherrypicked the very best Guantánamo musicians to kind Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo – a model of which nonetheless exists immediately. They’re thought of the standard-bearers of the city, barely quicker fashion that advanced after employees started arriving in cities. Thus conventional changüí was codified right into a style of 5 devices: tres, guayo, maracas, bongos and marímbula (an instrument with plucked metallic prongs connected to a field).

However away from this metropolitan fusion, in Guantánamo and the encompassing hills it’s nonetheless performed a lot because it’s at all times been performed. Changüí tells us of communities not in historical past books; tales are sung and handed from one era to the following like household heirlooms. “I preserve coming to [Guantánamo] as a result of my father was from right here,” says Elito, whose personal group Elito Revé y su Charangon shall be enjoying nightly outside exhibits. “That is my heritage and I don’t need it to be erased.”

Cuba’s struggles seep into changüí. The prizes for the competitors winners on the Changüí Elio Revé Matos pageant are actually certificates as a substitute of hand-carved picket statuettes. Some musicians obtain salaries from the federal government however they typically obtain these wages late, and the standard means of sourcing tres strings – not manufactured on the island – from overseas musicians or returning Cubans has dried up.

However regardless of the monetary and infrastructural difficulties, there’s a dedication to have a good time changüí’s legacy, and preserve the exhibits operating with barely a pause within the music. The pageant at all times ends with an all-nighter on the Casa del Changüí “Chito” Latamblé, with teams celebrating till 8am Monday morning. “You at all times know when a changüí begins,” the saying goes, “however not when it ends.”

Largely improvised homegrown dance music … Popó y su Changüí. {Photograph}: Gianluca Tramontana

Late changüí masters are celebrated with a big musical pilgrimage from the centre of city up 15 blocks to the cemetery. The procession marches alongside, making pit stops to bounce and sing as native teams Popó y su Changüí, Grupo Familia Vera and El Moreno y su Changüí play on avenue corners alongside the best way. “In changüí, we see demise not as disappointment, however as pleasure,” says pageant organiser José Cuenca, who tirelessly petitioned the federal government to get the custom formally recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Cuban Nation in 2018. “The changuisero could have gone, however their legacy stays. It’s a lifestyle, an identification, a delight in every individual’s spirit and sensibilities. It’s communal pleasure.”

One other group, Las Flores del Changüí, make a welcome return after bandleader Floridia Hernández skilled well being points caused by lengthy Covid. Girls have at all times been integral in changüí as musicians, singers and dancers, and as householders who commonly opened their doorways to three-plus days of continuous revelry. Throughout a Saturday night time avenue efficiency, Juana Poulot from Las Flores del Changüí shares the microphone with one other bandleader, retired sugar cane employee Alejandro “Popó” Moirán Gamboa, and the pair improvise verses for near seven minutes.

After the devices are packed away and the teams go away, members of Eusebia Latamblé y su Changüí – normally helmed by Chito’s Latamblé’s niece who sadly couldn’t make the pageant resulting from well being points – sing and play whereas passing a cup of rum round. “That is how we do it”, says 78-year-old reveller Rafael Cuesta. “Changüí is a neighborhood, we share every part, in good occasions and in onerous occasions. Changüí is my life.”

Gianluca Tramontana is producer of album and picture guide Changüí – The Sound of Guantánamo

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