Box Set Brings Joyful Changüí, The ‘Sound of Guantánamo,’ to a Wider Audience
Photo of changüi musicians taken by Gianluca Tramontana in Guantánamo, Cuba
The sound of Guantánamo is a party. Although a historically poor region overshadowed in name, geography, and context by the imposing US detention camp in the southernmost part of the Cuban province, Guantánamo is actually rich in music and tradition. And Changüí – The Sound of Guantánamo, a three-disc, 51-track box set that was released over the summer via Petaluma Records, is the first comprehensive collection of the sounds of Guantánamo.
Changüí — a traditional musical form from Baracoa, the easternmost part of Guantánamo — is a Spanish word derived from Congolese that translates to “party.” The sounds of trova and filin (learn more about the latter in the Spring 2021 “Great American Songbook” issue of No Depression) that marked the canonic Buena Vista Social Club record were actually rooted in music like this — music that’s rustic, rural, rhythmic, and riff-based. Changüí is also largely improvised, from when and where people gather to play along and dance to how the musical phrases actually fit together.
The instrumentation can vary as well. The tres, a six-string, guitar-like instrument similar to the cuatro and 19th-century Spanish guitar, is the most prominent sound, but percussion also plays an important role. Players tend to use whatever is available and accessible in the region, but traditionally, bongos, maracas (shakers from the Indigenous Taino), maríbula (a handheld, wooden box with pluckable metal tabs), and the scraping güiro can be heard keeping the beat in triplets.
According to the box set’s accompanying book of more than 100 pages of history, essays, photos, liner notes, and credits, changüí also refers to the three-day-long event — between when the days working in the plantation communities end and the next week begins — during which this kind of music proliferates. Changüí is both the performance and the gathering, the music and the party at which it’s played.
Staying Out of the Way
Gianluca Tramontana is one of the few people outside of Cuba who has been welcomed into this world of changüí. The Italian-born, self-described “recovering music journalist” traveled to Cuba and throughout Guantánamo multiple times between 2017 and 2019. He captured all of the tracks that comprise Changüí – The Sound of Guantánamo on the ground and in people’s homes across the region, with a just handheld recorder and a shotgun mic.
Initially, Tramontana thought these recordings might work for a radio feature or small multimedia project. He sent a snippet of a song to Grammy-award winning producer/mixer Steve Rosenthal — the founder and former owner of New York’s legendary Magic Shop studio, who worked on archival and restoration projects for Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Sam Cooke, and more — for his opinion.
Rosenthal was enthralled: “I had the same reaction to the recording that I had to classic Lomax recordings,” he says via Zoom, calling from Lower Manhattan. “I was completely transported. I felt like I really was experiencing the music in a firsthand way.”
That excitement and support was crucial to the box set’s creation. Tramontana admits with a laugh during the same Zoom call, “If it wasn’t for Steve, actually, none of this would have happened. I would just be clinging to the tape recordings in a shoebox or on my deathbed telling people what I almost did.”
In Guantánamo, Tramontana says, things moved very quickly and progressed very naturally. “We’d be hanging out and then we’d have a couple of glasses of rum and bosh!” — his Queens English accent and vernacular coming out — “Suddenly, a party would just happen, everyone would start playing.
“My idea was not to be a producer, my idea was to be a journalist. … The challenge, actually, was staying out of the way, because I didn’t want to interfere.”
Over the course of two years, Tramontana ended up recording more than 200 tracks. And the spontaneous, unencumbered nature of them is clear in the songs on the record. In “El Viaje Lo Pago Yo,” a song credited to Francisco “Mikikí” Hernández Valiente with his brothers, listeners can easily hear the sounds of birds chirping, even between the voices singing over each other and the competing percussion.
Many tracks, like “30 de Agosto” by Armando “Yu” Rey Leliebre (as well as others more obviously named with a variation of “Introduction Track”), include spoken elements. The closing track, “Goodbye Song,” performed by Alejandro “Popó” Moirán Gamboa, opens with seemingly an entire roomful of voices laughing.
One track in particular, “De Aquí Pa’ Italia,” Tramontana remembers, was made up on the spot. “We were just partying, actually, is what we were doing,” he says, chuckling at the memories. “The beginning [of the song] is cut off because I was getting more rum!
“There’s people singing on it that I don’t remember being there because it turned out … that there were the neighbors and they just came out and joined in in the chorus,” Tramontana continues. “I really enjoy that track because it didn’t exist a minute before the recording. And it’ll never happen again.”
Once Rosenthal received these recordings, he immediately recognized Tramontana’s intention and also wanted to respect that sonic intimacy. “I learned pretty quickly was that the less you interfered, the better; the more you let the location sing through the recordings, the better.” He worked alongside mix engineer Ed McEntee and mastering engineer Michael Graves to achieve that raw, real-time feel by mixing the music on a vintage Neve console in Brooklyn.
“You see the photos of [Tramontana] inside the changüí sessions and everyone is just having fun,” Rosenthal says. “He’s trying to document it so that we can then experience sort of the same thing that he did.”
Both Tramontana and Rosenthal are quick to explain that this project strives to be educational, not exploitative. Even without any initial funding, Tramontana paid all the musicians out of pocket and on site for their performances and participation.
Rosenthal credits his time working with the Lomax and Guthrie families as inspirational and foundation to how he approached Changüí – The Sound of Guantánamo. “I think we’ve been really very sensitive to the idea that what we’re actually doing is documenting … disseminating, and getting the public to learn about a kind of music that they’ve never really experienced before,” he says.
This music also represents a very real, living history that spans more than 150 years of tradition to the present. And Tramontana is adamant that roots music can help share these stories. “In history books,” he says, “it’s from the top down. And roots music is from the bottom up. … If you really want to know about an area or its people, the roots music will tell you everything there is to know.
“In this case, changüí music is really their story. A lot of the musicians on the recording don’t have any mementos or any pictures of their grandparents at all. But they have their songs. They carry their songs; they sing their songs.”
For listeners, especially those who may only speak English and are unfamiliar with the range and scope of Cuban roots music, these songs make for a perfect, four-hour dinner party playlist. Changüí – The Sound of Guantánamo includes dozens of musicians, in various musical configurations, playing songs fit for celebration that shuffle — both in sequencing and in musicality — with ease.
That reminder is vital to the overall enjoyment and appreciation of this immense undertaking of a compilation. Rosenthal doesn’t want to perseverate on what he calls “the anthropological exercise” of these songs. “This is dance music!” he exclaims. “These are brand new recordings. And people are playing changüí today.”
Tramontana agrees. “Thinking about music from the neck up is fine, if it brings you closer to the music,” he says. And in sharing these recordings, he continues, “I wanted to be rather careful [to share] that changüí is lively! It’s a vibe. It’s community. It’s sharing. It’s inclusive.”