The simple tune and patriotic lyrics of “Guantanamera,” Cuba’s signature song, have traveled to numerous far-flung corners of the planet. Even unlikely ones, I learned last Friday at a concert by Masanga Marimba at MacArthur Park’s Levitt Pavilion.
Masanga Marimba blends African and Latin American musical styles, mostly played on seven Zimbabwean marimbas ranging from tiny to gigantic. Other instruments include percussion, saxophone and trumpet. And all the musicians sing. Ric Alviso, an ethnomusicologist at the California State University of Northridge, leads the group — with considerable energy and expertise, judging by last week’s show.
At one point, he told an amazing story about travelling through rural Zimbabwe with locals as guides. The Zimbabweans didn’t ask for much in return for offering assistance — just a drink at the next bar. To Alviso’s surprise, the seemingly deserted countryside was dotted with scores of bars. The drinking went on into the night, and Alviso offered musical accompaniment on the mbira, a type of “thumb-piano” native to Zimbabwe. His song of choice? “Guantanamera,” of course. What happened next came as a surprise…
I swear, there were about 20 or 30 drunk…Zimbabwean guys who didn’t even know any English or any Spanish, but they knew the words to this song. And everyone was singing…”
Little wonder, then, that the crowd gathered in MacArthur Park (the heart of one of L.A.’s most predominantly Latino neighborhoods) knew the words too. All joined in with loud voices, singing “Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera…” Girl from Guantanamo, girl from the Guantanamo countryside.
And the song found a home in yet another corner of the world, far from Cuba.