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The Guateque Guajiro is what Cubans call a party out in the countryside, originally a traditional festivity for Cuban peasants. It occurs for a variety of reasons such as birthdays, weddings, baptisms, housewarmings, and the end of a harvest or the start of sugar cane cutting. Many times it occurs for no particular reason at all, just for the pleasure of getting together and sharing good times with friends and neighbors. Because of its contributions towards forming the Cuban cultural identity, it has earned itself a prominent place within the institutions promoting Cuban artistic creations.
At the center of this country fiesta is what is known as Punto Cubano or Punto Guajiro. This is pure Cuban country music with deep Hispanic roots. The main instrument in this genre is the guitar in several varieties: the Spanish guitar, the tres, the laús and the tiple. Other instruments used belong to the percussion family: the clave, the güiro and the guayo. Everything converges on the main ingredient of Punto Cubano, that is, the controversia or confrontation. Besides this, there are solo artists and groups playing montuno songs and improvisers who extoll the beauty of women and nature.
This music has also inspired different dance styles such as La caringa, El tumbantonio, and El papalote. Some of these are quite noticeably erotic, with the dance demonstrating the courting ritual.
At guateques there are usually two competing sides, showing off their talents in both song and dance, and distinguishable by the different colors of their neckerchiefs. Men generally wear guayaberas and broad-brimmed hats woven from palm straw, the famous sombreros de yarey, while the women are decked out in lovely dresses with lots of flounces, their hair flowing freely or put up with natural flowers as decoration. In any case, the main color in evidence for both men and women is white.
As we have just mentioned, the highlight tends to be the confrontation among improvisers who look for a controversial subject to be treated with humor and a sharp wit, all the while trying to find their adversary’s most evident weak spots. They recite their verse in décimas that vary in their rhythms depending on the region of the country. These artists are called repentistas and the most common tonadas and puntos they use are punto libre, fijo and cruzado; there are also tonadas with refrains, Punto Espirituano and the seguidilla. Many repentistas travel all over the country and a very stimulating interchange takes place among the various local customs and traditions.
In the remote areas of the country the way in which people travel to guateques can be rather picturesque. Some are on horseback, often withother people sharing the ride, some arrive in carriages, and others in tractor-pulled wagons or ox-drawn carts.
The guateque has become a vignette that brings together a number of typically Cuban traditions. While the singing goes on, someone is always roasting a pig on an open fire and there is usually a group playing dominoes. A dish made with yucca that has been marinated in a garlic-laden sauce, often called the root vegetable of preference for guateques, provides the finishing touch to the roast pork.
I dare say that whoever goes to this festive event will better understand some of the more spiritual values of our culture and the most consistent traditions born in the rural areas. This is the best way to discover the characteristics of the folk who live in the countryside. And it’s not just singing and dancing that goes on; spoken narration and games of skill are also distinct possibilities.
The Guateque del Nengón a form of Son, has is roots in Baracoa, Guantánamo Province, specifically in a neighborhood called El Cuero where Candelario Matos, who was a loyal singer of the genre, lived. The El Nengón is believed to have been created over 100 years ago and the musical instruments were fashioned by the peasants themselves, like the tumbandera, a kind of chordophone, and the bunga, a drum made out of a hollow stick that is covered with jutía or deer skins. For example, the tres is made from rough boards or from the wood of the crates cod are transported in, with cedar necks and güira keys and steel strings. Such original materials give the music a truly unique sound.
In spite of the enormous changes our rural areas have been undergoing, the Guateque Campesino is alive and well. Younger generations have been responsible for keeping it going, continuing with the Punto Cubano and updating it so that it maintains all the vitality it has had for so many years in the Cuban countryside.