Recordings from Cuba’s Guantánamo Region Shine ‘CHANGÜÍ – The Sound of Guantánamo (ALBUM REVIEW)

When most think of Cuban music, they land on The Buena Vista Social Club, which rendered several styles but primarily son and danzon. Cuba, like most places, has a rich array of styles, depending on the region.  While the former centered primarily on Havana, except for the music of guitarist Eliades Ochoa, who hails from the province Santiago de Cuba and played a style called guajiro. Changüí is a style of Cuban music that originated in the early 19th century in the eastern region of Guantánamo Province, specifically Baracoa.  Guantánamo Province (and this has nothing to do with the U.S, Naval Base, and detention facility, of course) neighbors that of Ochoa’s, so like the Delta Blues here in America, the style arose in in the rural communities populated by slaves.  The Changüí style has largely gone unrecognized outside of the region but this 3 CD set, CHANGÜÍ – The Sound of Guantánamo is about to change that. 

The Changüí means “party” and combines the structure and elements of Spain‘s canción and the Spanish guitar with African rhythms and percussion instruments of Bantu origin.  has been stated many times, that Cuban culture starts East and moves West, and Guantánamo Province is as far East as you can go. This area is the source of much of the Cuban music we’re familiar with, despite the relative obscurity of changüi. Independent producer and music journalist Gianluca Tramontana, whose roots in music expertise has been featured in several prestigious outlets has been visiting Cuba since the 1990s. 

Back in New York, Tramontana shared some of the recordings with an old friend and colleague, four-time GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Steve Rosenthal. Rosenthal immediately recognized that Tramontana’s digital recordings were special — that they managed to capture the energy and excitement of the festivities happening in areas of the country not often explored. 

With support from Petaluma Records, mix engineer Ed McEntee and three-time GRAMMY® Award-winning mastering engineer Michael Graves worked with Rosenthal and Tramontana to complete the production of this 50 track, 3 CD collection, curated from well over 200 recordings made in Guantánamo. The collection comes with an 80-page booklet packed with color photographs and rich history of the form and its participants. 

As you glean through the various artists playing this authentic, joyous, primal music, you’ll notice that several artists appear in multiple ensembles. That’s because music is passed down through the generations and shared among family members. The flag bearer for this music has long been since 1945 the ensemble, Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo, who plays a more urban version of the style. They are one of the only groups in this collection who have previously recorded and the only one to have played outside of Cuba. They are akin in this country to The Blind Boys of Alabama, welcoming new members, and younger generations as they sustain their name. Its current band leader and lead vocalist, José Andrés Rodríguez Ramírez aka “El Sinsonte” is a freestyler who improvises lyrics at length without ever repeating himself. 

Unlike some Latin cultures, women play a central role in Changüí often hosting parties and venues where the music is played. While Cuban parents may not have wanted the life of a traveling changüisero for their daughters, the history of changüí and Cuban music, in general, has its share of legendary women musicians, here represented by the all-female ensemble, Las Flores del Changüí, led by vocalist and tres player Floridia Hernández Daudinot who follows in the tradition of her tres playing grandmother. Adding a fourth-generation, Daudinot’s daughter is the guiro player in the ensemble.

To get a better feel for all these family ties, bandleader, tres player and vocalist Francisco “Mikikí” Hernández Valiente appears in multiple ensembles in o with his brothers and other fellow changüiseros. Alejandro “Popó” Moirán Gamboa—the leader of Popó y su Changüí—and his brothers learned from their father, a vocalist, and mother, a tres player. 75-year-old Pedro Vera Pagán, the lead vocalist and tres player of Grupo Familia Vera learned from his now 97-year-old father, Eugenio. The collection also showcases 90-year-old master changüisero and tresero Armando “Yu” Rey Leliebre. Leliebre’s contributions to the tradition of changüí cannot be overstated. Leliebre was the co-founder of Grupo Estrellas Campesinas, an ensemble started in 1982 that plays the century-old early form of changüí. He was also a mentor to bandleader and singer Celso Fernández Rojas, known as “El Guajiro,” who fronts El Guajiro y su Changüí. Sadly, Leliebre passed away at 91; some months after these recordings were made, but his many songs and the legacy of his music live on.


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