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I remember sitting next to Gianluca Tramontana at Havana’s Mella Theater in December 2016, for a concert by pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra within Cuba’s annual jazz festival. I was ending a reporting trip for a story about O’Farrill’s explorations of his Cuban roots, set against the backdrop of then-normalizing relations, embargo notwithstanding, between the U.S. and Cuba during the Obama administration.
Tramontana’s journey, it turns out, was just beginning. An experienced music journalist and broadcaster born in Italy and living in New York City, he, like me, had fallen in love with the island, especially its entrancing and expansive musical culture. His first report from Cuba for National Public Radio explored the island’s tradition of organ grinders. By early 2017, he was off in search of traditional changüí, a musical style born in the 19th century in Guantánamo Province, on the eastern tip of Cuba.
Nearly five years later, I had the fruits of Tramontana’s quest in my hands: a glorious three-disc boxed set titled Changüí: The Sound of Guantánamo (Petaluma). The collection’s 50 tracks bristle with the strumming of tres, a guitar-like instrument of Cuban origin; the deep-toned throbs of the marímbula, a wooden box with plucked keys; the syncopated beats of bongos and maracas; and the sung passages that told stories about the past or just reveled in the joy of a moment. I’d been writing about Cuban music, especially the many varieties of Afro-Cuban jazz, for more than 20 years, and had been back to the island several times. But I’d never ventured to Guantánamo Province. I’d never heard anything quite like this.
I dug into the music and the accompanying glossy 120-page book, rich with photography and background. The more I listened, the more I invested in O’Farrill’s comment in the book’s introduction: “If music is the fabric of life in the rest of Cuba, then changüí is existence itself … here was not so much a musical style but a way of life.” In his book, Tramontana claims that the word “changüí” was most likely derived from “qui-sangüí,” the Congolese word for dance, or more literally “jump for joy.” In the villages around Guantánamo City and in the city itself, he reports, the musical gatherings — something in between informal parties and jam sessions — often last for three days.
For Tramontana, the project was sparked during a trip to a Havana radio station, where he was being interviewed. Off the air, while waiting for one of Fidel Castro’s marathon broadcast speeches to end, someone popped in a cassette. “This was not like all the Cuban music I knew,” he told me in an interview. “It wasn’t tied to the clave [the five-beat pattern elemental to most of the island’s music]. It was syncopated and full of call-and-response singing. It was tight but also wonderfully raggedy. It bounced around like a three-legged horse but, still, it felt elegant too.” He was smitten by these sounds.
Yet, as he poked around in Havana and other towns, he found little to satisfy him. He realized that precious little traditional changüí music had left the Guantánamo region, and that most people thought of the genre in terms of the modern, big-city changüí with electric instruments. Good as that stuff was, it lacked the grit and charming looseness of that cassette. “It was as if I’d heard Robert Johnson’s blues, and now everyone was telling me about the Rolling Stones or the Allman Brothers,” he said. In fact, when I posed questions about changüí to pianist David Virelles, who was born in Santiago de Cuba, not far from Guantánamo, and who now is a fast-rising star in New York City, he wrote to me in an email that “changüí is a foundational culture in Cuban music … . But outside of the region in Cuba where this music thrives, there’s little understanding or appreciation of it.”
Tramontana “fell down a rabbit hole,” he said. “I realized the culture was very deep. It’s not just music. It’s a lineage, and it’s a memory bank. It’s their history and it’s also their daily life.” In January 2017, his planned 10-day trip to Guantánamo became a two-month stay. His research for a radio piece about changüí turned into a project that drew him back again and again through 2019.
For most Americans, the mention of Guantánamo calls little to mind besides the military prison in which terrorism suspects are detained without due process and interrogated without restraint. In the U.S., this continuing legacy is either a source of pride and an example of national defense, or, as for me, a source of shame and an unforgivable offense.
Far removed from the controversies of the facility, yet physically nearby, are the sugar and coffee plantations in the mountains around Guantánamo City, the welcoming and joyous wellspring of changüí. That’s where Tramontana roamed with his camera and hand-held stereo recorder. In contrast to say, Ry Cooder’s approach to Buena Vista Social Club, Tramontana did not want to curate a session or a sound. He wasn’t interested in an ethnographic or musicological study either. “I’m no expert,” he said, “nor do I wish to be. I want to take you with me, let you hear what I heard, simple as that.” He made a conscious decision not to use microphone stands or to arrange musicians.
The first group we hear is the first one he recorded: Grupo Estrellas Campesinas, performing “Changüí en Yateras,” in Casa de Pipi’s Garden, the thatched roof structure that one of the group’s founders, the late Eduardo “Pipi” Goulet Lestapier, had built in front of his house for musical gatherings (and where an enthusiastic rooster crowed along). The group’s co-founder, master changuisero and tresero Armando “Yu” Rey Leliebre, died at 91 just months after recording the two tracks that showcase his own distinctive mastery. Tramontana’s favorite track, the mesmerizing “El Viaje lo Pago Yo (I’ll Pay for the Trip),” documents Francesco Hernández Valiente (known as “Mikikí”) and his brothers on the back patio of their Guantánamo City home. The lyrics they sing summon deceased changuiseros for a “final party” in honor of a late percussionist.
Tramontana’s right. This music is one big party. It does contain history, some of it slipping away. Yet, by the evidence of these 50 tracks, changüí is still very much alive. The party goes on. - Larry Blumenfeld