‘Guantanamera’: Pete Seeger’s Latin Legacy

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This article by Judy Cantor-Navas appeared in Billboard. Follow the link below for several videos of performances of the song.

“There’s no sense in me singing it all by myself. Let me teach it to you. Even if you never sang a note of Spanish, you can get those two words…”

Pete Seeger’s version of the Cuban song “Guantanamera” was released on his album “We Shall Overcome,” recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1963, in the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Seeger later urged American audiences to “to sing “Guantanamera” in the original Spanish and not in translation “to hasten the day” that “the U.S.A. . . .is some sort of bilingual country.”

The prescient and passionate folk singer, who died Monday (Jan. 27) at age 94, was also a crossover pioneer. “Guajira Guantanamera” started in 1932 as an ode to a hot and haughty girl written by Cuban singer/songwriter Joseíto Fernandez. The song would became a patriotic Cuban anthem after Julián Orbón adapted stanzas from “Versos Sencillos” by the Cuban poet, intellectual and independence hero José Martí as lyrics for the song.

Seeger, who later noted that Martí was living in exile in New York State when he wrote the poems, first heard the song in 1961 at a children’s camp in the Catskills, where Cuban musician Hector Angulo was working as a counselor.  Seeger later recalled that he didn’t speak any Spanish, but “But I said I’ve got to try and learn it.”

After Seeger began to perform it, urging audiences to sing along, “Guantamera” introduced some Americans to Spanish, and it became an anthem for immigrants, Cuban or otherwise.

“It’s one of my favorite songs in the entire world,” Seeger told an audience at Wolftrap in 1993, when, as on many occasions later in his life, he sang the song with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. “I’ve sung it in 35 countries of this world.”

Seeger died on the eve of the 161st anniversary of the birth of Jose Martí, whose verses praising nature and extolling solidarity with the campesino he so loved.

In homage to the great singer and activist, we’ve put together a list of versions of the song by artists including Jose Feliciano, Los Lobos, Celia Cruz and Pitbull, and performances by Seeger himself captured on video.

As Seeger liked to say, “join in on the refrain.”

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