“Guantanamera” (Spanish: “from Guantánamo [feminine]”, thus “woman from Guantánamo“) is perhaps the best known Cuban song and that country’s most noted patriotic song. In 1966, a version by American vocal group The Sandpipers, based on an arrangement by Pete Seeger, became an international hit.
The music for the song is sometimes attributed to José Fernández Diaz, known as Joseíto Fernández, who claimed to have written it at various dates (consensus puts 1929 as its year of origin), and who used it regularly in one of his radio programs. Some claim that the song’s structure actually came from Herminio “El Diablo” García Wilson, who could be credited as a co-composer. García’s heirs took the matter to court decades later but lost the case: the Supreme Court of Cuba credited Fernández as the sole composer of the music in 1993. Regardless of either claim, Fernández can safely be claimed as being the first public promoter of the song, through his radio programs.
- Given the song’s musical structure, which fits A-B-A-B (sometimes A-B-B-A) octosyllabic verses, “Guantanamera” lent itself from the beginning to impromptu verses, improvised on the spot, similar to what happens with the Mexican folk classic “La Bamba“. Fernández’s first use of the song was precisely this; he would comment on daily events on his radio program by adapting them to the song’s melody, and then using the song as a show closer. Through this use, “Guantanamera” became a popular vehicle for romantic, patriotic, humorous, or social commentary lyrics, in Cuba and elsewhere in the Spanish speaking world.
- The general tune of this song is an extremely common English football chant, such as “There’s only one (insert player name)” or “You only sing when you’re winning”.
- It was only when US folk icon Pete Seeger recorded Guantanamera in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that the rest of the world came to know this song.