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Guantanamera

 
 
 
 
Music: José Fernández Díaz

 

Lyrics: Most widely sung version from a poem by the Cuban nationalist poet and hero José Martí

Singer: Pete Seeger and very many others

Despite it's suitability as a soccer chant, the melody of Guantanamera has a rare beauty. The melody has been used for countless texts over the years, from the political to the comical, but is most closely associated with the dignified words of poet José Martí:

Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crecen las palmas
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma

I am an honest man
From where the palm trees grow
And before dying I want
To share the verses of my soul

(My translation)

I would argue that the music of Guantanamera is in the Myxolydian mode, gravitating as it does towards the note and chord of G (when played on the white notes of a keyboard). In support of this, I point to the commonly sung harmony part which ends on an octave G, and the prominent use of chords of G, C, D minor (which are chords I, IV and V of the Mixolydian mode starting on G). Also, the range of song is just over an octave from G to A; it is quite common for melodies to have a range of just over one octave from tonic to tonic, plus a note either side allowing for leading-note-to-tonic and/or supertonic to tonic cadences.

If I had to put my finger on what sets the melody of Guantanamera apart, I would be inclined to say that it is the strong “guantanamera” rhythmic figure, which holds the song together with its very syncopated, Latin feel. (We are in Cuba after all!)

It is surprising how much strength and beauty is gleaned from a range of only a perfect fourth in the first three lines of the chorus. The emotional highpoint on the third ”Guantanamera” is achieved by sustaining the final two notes of the repeated “guantanamera” rhythmic figure, so that it no longer ends off the beat. The melody then plunges from its apex, first through a minor triad, and then stepwise to come to rest on the final tonic. The last two lines of the melody are the same in the verse and the chorus, tying the two parts of the song together together, although the lyrics are different.



 
 
 
 
 

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