Interviews September 23, 2021
Ben Lapidus on Changüí: Music of Eastern Cuba

Ben Lapidus is a musician and ethnomusicologist living in New York City. Afropop reached out to him in preparing our program “Changüí!” The occasion for this show is the release of the box set Changüí: The Sound of Guantánamo, a set of three CDs of changüí songs recorded in and around Guantánamo by journalist Gianluca Tramontana, accompanied by a 100-page, photo-rich book. Tramontana is the principle voice in our program and his passion and storytelling wonderfully complement this ebullient, community-based party music of eastern Cuba. But all of this raised deeper questions about the origins, nature and history of this often overlooked genre.

That’s where Ben Lapidus comes in. In 2008, he published Origins of Cuban Music and Dance: Changüí, based on his doctoral thesis in graduate school. Apparently, this is the only English-language book on the genre. Afropop’s Banning Eyre reached out to Lapidus over Zoom, and found the scholar’s musicianship, historical knowledge and first-hand research enormously illuminating—the perfect complement to Tramontana’s ground-breaking work. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

Banning Eyre: How did you get interested in changüí?

Ben Lapidus: It started in the 1990s, and changüí is really what propelled me to go to grad school. I realized there was so much that could be written on this topic, especially in eastern Cuba and Oriente. I am actually going to do a new version of my book this year, and a Spanish version as well.

Am I right that yours is the only scholarly book on changüí in English?

Probably. But it shouldn't be that way. There's a lot to be done. And everything that I've done is by no means the final word. Folks in Cuba have done some incredible work. A lot of people down there have been dealing with this material for a long time. And they really helped me get a lot of stuff together, leading me to the right people before they passed on. I got to deal with a lot of people in the '90s who were in their 90s, and who could tell me about the music that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents played.

They trusted me with a lot of information and saw to it that I put down the story as they knew it and wanted it to be told. And I'm forever grateful to a lot of people down there, many of the same people that Gianluca was in touch with. That's really what kept me going back. Before I went the first time, I kept hearing the word changüí on records. I was just mystified by the way the music was put together. I couldn't figure it out. Parts were independent enough and there was enough freedom in a few of the parts, but there was also a lot of cohesion in the groove.

I kept asking people in New York and elsewhere, great musicians, about it, but they couldn't really answer the questions I had. Then there was a program put together by Caribbean Music and Dance. I don't know if they're still around. But Melissa Daar and some other people put together that program and I jumped on the chance to go. I wanted to see what was going on. After that trip was when I decided to really go in all the way. I saw how all these people there were still alive and they were willing to talk about stuff and share. From that moment on, that was it.

You were hooked.

It's now been about 25 years I've been into it.

That’s absolutely the best way to do research, to be able to talk to the old folks who know stuff that you won’t learn any other way. If they're willing to talk, that is gold. But, Ben, for the novice, tell us what is changüí? And what is its history?

Changüí is a really fascinating, groove-oriented music. It probably coalesced sometime around the 1850s, 1860s in the far eastern region of Cuba, before the modern division of provinces. We’re talking the zone around Guantánamo, Holguin, an area near Santiago de Cuba, basically that whole eastern tip of Cuba. Changüí is a reflection of a bunch of different cultures and languages and musical visions coming together. You have Afro-Haitian music, language and culture. You have English Caribbean folks who moved back and forth. It's a mixture of a bunch of different things. It fits within the scheme of Cuban music to a certain degree, but it also completely breaks the scheme of Cuban music.

I think historically people have looked at Cuban music and divided up by ethnicity and divided up by location, and things like that. And that a certain point, changüí breaks all of that. First of all it was a rural music, played by mostly people of color, people of African descent, and it's a very local music. I think historically country music, as it were, in Cuba, like punto guajiro or anything associated with rural traditions in Cuba, was helped by a large contribution to a white Spanish Cuban heritage. With changüí, this is not the case.

That's a little background information. The music itself is played with a large wooden lamellaphone, the large marimbula. Mistakenly, people called it a large thumb piano, because it's not a thumb piano.

For starters, you don't play it with your thumbs...

Right. But what's great about the marimbula is that it shows the Bantu heritage. The player sits on top of it, plucks the metal tongues, and also strikes the instrument on the sides or the back. In Spanish that's called to llevar el tiempo, to “carry the time.” So they are playing sort of a backbeat rhythm, and also one on top of the rhythm at the same time, which is something that people who study Cuban music, like Danilo Orozco, talk about—this double percussing and plucking thing that happens. That also happens with the ground-harp, which is also used in Cuba

Then you have the bongo, which is played reversed from the usual bongo. The bongó usually has a small drumhead and a large drumhead. In changüí, that's exaggerated even more, and it's flipped around. And the instrument is tuned with heat as opposed to with metal tuning rods. It's a really deep sound, and a certain point the bongocero or bongocera makes a sort of roaring sound with their fingers that goes across the drum. Some people have said that comes from Haitian music, and I would agree, the siyé pattern or the bramido, as they call it in Spanish. In Haitian religious music, that sound calls the spirits, and it happens in the middle of changüí as well. When the tres player takes a solo, the bongocero makes that sound.

Then you have two instruments that are keeping steady time, the maracas and the guayo, a metal scraper that is usually scraped with a screwdriver or a or a knitting needle or a bone. There are some people who use of fork as in the Puerto Rican guiro and other rasping instruments. But here, it is usually played with a single stroker like a screwdriver.

And then there’s the tres, which is kind of what holds it all together. There's no clavé. There's no timeline. You might argue that the timeline that holds it together comes from the maracas and the scraper, but they don't come in at first. When a changüí song starts, the tres is by itself. There are a couple of repetitions of the chorus of the song, and then the whole band jumps and after the second time, on the very last beat. The drummer will come in with a five-stroke roll. The scraper player will shout out “Ya!” And the maracas start right away. [Sings rhythm].

So 25 years ago, when I was hearing this, I was puzzled. How is this all held together? If the tres player starts by playing this pattern (plays opening pattern) Somehow, everybody jumps in right … there! But how do they know where to jump in? Because what’s fascinating about the tres is that it’s playing all upbeats. For the most part it's playing off the beat. It’s playing all upbeats. The position is always off the beat, but everybody else comes in on down beats. So that's another twist. There's no clave guiding the other instruments. Basically, everyone has to have such a good concept of where the downbeat is that they still come in right.

That's beautiful. Very interesting.

And then the dancers also step with the marímbula. So when you see it, it looks really funny at first. Why are these people dancing like this? But it all makes sense. Then, as the singers are singing, the chorus surrounding the musicians are going to sing as well. So it becomes this kind of spontaneous, immediate, community participation in the musicmaking. And then the whole other layer on top of that is that the songs for the most part, the sort of canon of changüí songs, if you will, were about these local players and local musicians and parties, and who fell in love with who, and who had a beef with who. Some of these stories go back over 100 years.

It’s kind of like a Robert Johnson situation, or Buddy Bolden. “Oh, my grandfather saw this happen, he taught me this song. My mother played at this party and she said that's why we sing this song.” So it's an incredible mixture of local history in song, very hot syncopated, grooving music, and it's kind of a party environment. This could go on for hours. Or days. If the conditions are correct, if there's enough food and alcohol and people, this could just go on and on. And if you talk to people from the past, they will say, "Yeah, this lasted all the way from Christmas through Three Kings Day and for another eight days beyond that." Or, "We would go on a weekend. We would pack our clothes in a bundle and cross rivers and get muddy, and then get there and clean ourselves off and put on our clothes and be ready to dance." People would come with nursing children, and take turns watching the kids while somebody else could dance. It's a real communal type of coming together around music. That was something that was really unique and deep.

So for me, coming from New York, this was not the typical way of life. Seeing how the music fit in with the history and all these different families playing music, was really an incredible experience. That's one of the deepest parts about the music beyond the actual coolness of the sound of music is the fact that it's so rooted, and it tells the history of the region in so many ways.

So changüí has these African elements, and some of them coming from Haiti and elsewhere, and it’s a music that tells its own story, preserving its history, which is also kind of African, not unlike what griots do. But there is also a Spanish element in the way the words are delivered. Talk about that.

Throughout Cuba and the Americas, most of the Spanish-speaking Americas, and anything from the Iberian Peninsula, there's this heritage of sung poetry. There are some genres of music that really spend a lot of energy on this. Like Cuban rumba will use the décima, which is a form of poetry from the golden age of Spain, going back 600 years. You have a rhyme scheme that is eight syllables per line, and you have 10 lines in Spanish. And the rhyme scheme is usually:


There are some variations on that, and in changüí, people will kind of freestyle, or do a smaller form like A B B A. Anything is possible, but they will come to battle one another. The verse of the song will be through, someone will play a solo, and then people will kind of match each other in terms of reciting verses. It's kind of like a scripted rap freestyle. But you have to follow a particular rhyme scheme. That is the expectation.

You also see that in punta guajiro or sica campesina. You hear it in rumba from Matanzas. You find it in the Puerto Rican jibaro music, and it’s done in the Dominican Republic. It's a very common literary tool for Spanish-language music in the Americas. But in the case of changüí, it's actually quite integral to the performance in live improvisation.

That's fascinating. I know from some earlier programs that we did that this kind of poetry goes back to the time of Al Andalus, when the whole idea of rhyme schemes came into Europe from the Arab world, which is kind of mind-blowing when you think of it.

Yes. It just keeps going and going and going, and where it will end up is anybody's guess. But is quite incredible all these connections.

I'm interested in the idea of repertoire. There's a lot of improvisation in the music. Gianluca told me about watching a song be created, a song about him, “From here to Italy.” But at the same time these songs are preserving all this history. So I'm wondering if the canon of songs you refer to are formalized and always performed more or less the same way? Or is there an aesthetic of having to change them and play them differently each time? What is the balance between composition and improvisation in the song lyrics?

It is a thriving and living culture. It's not a museum. That's an important thing to point out, because there's a lot of younger people of who have picked up the mantle since a lot of the old-timers have either stepped down or passed on. When I speak about a canon of changüí songs, we’re talking about songs that anybody who is familiar with the genre will know—songs you hear over and over, such as “El Guararey de Pastora” also called “Pastorita,” which Los Van Van recorded. It was written by Roberto Bauta. Someone else claimed authorship when Los Van Van recorded it, but it wasn't his song. That's a song about a guy who was writing to his prospective mother-in-law because she didn't want him to get together with his daughter, because he was already married and had a family. So that's a very local problem in history, but it was recorded by a famous band in Cuba, arguably one of the most well-known.

So people know that particular song, and there are other similar songs like “Mayombero,” which talks about a musician who says, “Don't mess with me because I practice palo mayómbe, And if you mess with me, I'll do something to you.” In truth, the guy didn't have these powers; he was just trying to scare someone away.

There's a classic song about Maria Guevara, and she was upset because she wasn't invited to a particular party. And then there's a song about the lead singer from Grupo Changüí, whose name is Cambrón [Carlos Borromeo Planche]. He was telling somebody about a great party. And there are other songs that say things like, "If you really want to play changüí, you have to drink rum, and you have to roast pig. That's really the secret to having a good changüí." So those are some of the songs that have been handed down. And there are even older songs where people talk about particular musicians who've been gone for over 100 years.

Then you have someone like Elio Revé, who was the precursor to Los Van Van. Juan Formel was actually in Elio’s band, and he did a lot of songs that were about changüí and Yateras and Guantánamo, lots of songs in the 1950s singing about coffee and things like that. So people talked about changüí and you knew what it was in the popular culture, but it was really associated with this urban/rural phenomenon in the city of Guantánamo.

In terms of new songs, there are competitions that have constantly been held over the last 20 or so years, where people would come and present new songs. People are just naturally creative. In Gianluca’s collection, there's a great song that I love about the Copenhagen Climate Accords. It talks about taking care of the ozone, so clearly the genre is able to tackle any topic. The key to it is just coming up with a catchy hook, what is called the montuno section—that repeated chorus during which the main singer improvises lines in a call-and-response fashion.

It could really be about anything, like the one Gianluca talks about in the song that they created about him, “From Here to Italy.” The music is totally conducive to that. It's about improvising. It's about singing something on the spot. I remember one time I was at a party and I was eating some soup and two guys from Grupo Changüí came and they started with an old song from maybe 200 years ago and they changed the lyrics to be about me eating the soup. "Where is Ben? He's eating soup. What’s he doing? He's eating soup." They went on for like half an hour or so. And then the ones that people remember, they will take out and use at another time. That happens in a lot of Cuban music.

When you talk about a song surviving for 200 years in that kind of practice, you have to think that it doesn't sound like it did all those years ago. It's been through all sorts of evolutions and metamorphosis. So when you talk about that canon of well-known songs, do they really stick to a certain way of playing it?

There are a lot of possibilities. Traditionally, the changüísero, the person who wrote the song, was usually the person who played tres. Today, it's not that common to have a tres player be the lead singer. In this way, it was much more similar to the country blues or the blues tradition where the guitar player was the vocalist. Nowadays, the lead vocalist could be any of the percussionists. But in the old days, it was these legendary tres players like Montalvo, and Pedro Massó and Julio Nuñez and Juan Logát. And we know their songs because we still play them. These guys had lots of tricks. They would change the tuning of their instruments so somebody else couldn’t steal their licks that easily. There are a lot of songs from those gentlemen that survive to this day where they kind of pick at each other. "You are the guy they call for the parties up in the mountains, but down here in the valleys, I'm the king. And you better be careful if you come down here and try to play it. Because you won't match me."

So if somebody learned one of those songs from their father or grandfather, they will be recollecting it and playing it as they heard it. And then somebody else might've heard a different version of it and might play it differently. And then, you will have tres players will add little things to the way it's played. Someone will say, "Hey, I like the way this person does that." I'll never forget that I heard Nino Mendoza a long time ago play his version of “Pastorita,” and harmonically it comes a little bit differently because he plays a dominant seventh in the montuno, which is cool sounding to my ears, but that's not the way it was.

And then there are people who are sort of sticklers. "Oh, I know the person who wrote the song. This is how they did it." Now mind you, none of this was ever notated. The first notations of the songs really pops up in the 1940s because there was a musicologist who was also the municipal band leader whose name was Rafael Inciarte Brioso, and he started to write this stuff down. He's the one who encouraged the musicians to form a formal group. Beyond that, there was really only one changüísero was writing his music down in notation. His name was Rácifo Durán, “El Guajiro,” the country hick. He came from the mountains of Las Cidras and he went back to school at the age of 44 to get an education. He was in a music program with students 30 years younger than him and he learned to write music. He started to write a lot of his songs down on paper.

He was really an incredible guy, a very funny guy. I learned a lot of funny stories from him like about one changüísero picking a fight with another one. There is a long tradition of stories from parties about somebody stealing somebody else's romantic partner and chasing after them and throwing a marimbula after him. These things make it into songs. But in terms of playing the songs differently. Yes, people want to put their own spin on them, but they have to fulfill the expectations that the listeners are going to want to hear, and the dancers are going to want to hear. So there's plenty of space to stretch out, but you can't do some crazy version of a song that has nothing to do with the original.

I imagine that some of those stories preserved from the past could also be applied to present tense situations. So you could start with the original song and then somehow adapt it to match something that's happening in real time.

Sure. Sure. It happens all the time.

This also makes me think of the Mande griot music. Because you have this repertoire of songs from back in the mists of time. And you have to wonder, did this song really sound like this in 1235? But part of the art that the singer is to do what you said, to fulfill expectation of the listener, but then there's an obligation to bring it into the present with references to what’s happening now. It's not as playful as what we’re talking about with changüí, but it's a similar dynamic.

There's a mechanical piece to this that is really fascinating from an archaeological/musical point of view. There are a lot of songs that were written by the tres players that tend to fall within these three or four frets. It has to be in this very playable region. And the older songs have some twists and turns that are really particular to the instrument. The songs written by people who play that instrument have a different structure than the songs written by singers who don't play the instrument. When you look back and listen to or transcribe these older songs, you can see the differences. One key thing is that the voice and the tres always move together. That is requisite. You have to have that. As the voice moves, the tres doubles the part exactly.

So if the tres player didn't write the song, he has to work very closely with the singer to make sure that they're following the same line.


But would you ever have someone who's just a singer, not playing any instrument?

There are groups nowadays that have singers exclusively doing the lead and improvising. That's actually probably the dominant practice these days. There are a few groups on the collection, Mikikí who sings and plays. You've got Pedro Vera who sings and plays. There may be a couple of other people, but the vast majority of groups these days, it's the lead singer who is not playing tres. It has moved pretty fundamentally away from that model.

One of the things that Gianluca said that surprised me is that in general when you talk to people in Cuba about changüí, they will think of Los Van Van and Elio Revé. They really don't know that much about the traditional changüí that we hear on this collection. He said that even in neighboring provinces, you would find a surprising lack of knowledge about this tradition. Is that really the case?

I think that's a little bit less today just because it happened in the past two years of a flurry of documentaries about this music. There was a recent one called Nuestro Changüí.

There was one called Cinco Changüíseros.

I think that for people beyond Cuba, those films have been incredibly useful. For people within Cuba, I think that changüí is still a very local genre of music. When you hear it, it really grabs you, and I think that any Cuban will say that, but it takes a specific skill set to play. There are some real idiosyncrasies as I was saying earlier, about how the music is organized. The fact that there's no timeline keeping it together, and people don't know where the downbeat is.

There's that. There's also the dancing, which is a lot less glamorous and showy than other genres. I have seen people perform what they consider to be changüí in other parts of Cuba, and unless there's somebody who's really studied it, it's not really right. They're kind of doing their impression of it. It's either simplified or it misses the complexity of the syncopation, or in some places the simplicity. Sometimes people try to overdo it, and then it totally loses the fact that it's actually quite simple. It's deceptively simple. So it can be overdone or under done. All the musicians in the ensemble have to know what the other parts are and be really tuned into what else is happening.

I want to talk about how changüí got popularized through people like Elio Revé. But before we go there. I want to dig a little deeper on this business about it not having a timeline. Changüí is not a rhythm, is it? Because when I listen to these songs, they don't all have the same rhythm. There's one that sounds almost like cumbia. It seems to me that there's a variety of rhythms in the songs. What can we say about the vocabulary of rhythms or the fundamental rhythmic character of changüí songs.

I put changüí in its own complex. For Cuban musicologists, we have the son complex and the rumba complex, and I would talk with people over the years and say, "Well changüí has this and that, but it kind of breaks that whole scheme." At first I met a lot of resistance, but then people started to change their views and we started to have some great conversations about this. Leonardo Acosta, who before he passed, changed his point of view completely on these complexes.

I see changüí as its own complex of music with a bunch of subtypes or subgenres. You've got kiribá, you’ve got nengón. You've got old-style changüí. You've got traditional changüí, modern changüí, and then you have some other genres like the pata-pata and contra-pa, the aeroplano. There are lots of little dance genres that have specific rhythms that you could kind of fold into changüí.

In terms of rhythm, the güayo and the maracas pretty much play the same thing no matter what is happening underneath. The question is a harmonic question in terms of the movement of the tres. You can think of the marímbula as playing the tonic and the dominant, but I think you're better off just thinking about it as another drum that produces a low and a high sound.

So the rhythms that are going to be expected when someone is playing changüí will come from the percussion instruments. It is expected that the bongó is going to more or less be improvising. There is a kind of ride pattern for when the player doesn't have any more ideas, where s/he kind of stays out of the way, but plays a pattern. And the tres pretty much has to stay static, unless it's his time to improvise. Other than that, the rhythms are fairly consistent.

I think the song you hear as cumbia is actually a vallenato song. It could be a cumbia song. Changüí like other genres of music can borrow from another style, as long as it has that same tempo and that same rhythmic drive, in this case from the maracas. Anything that fits into that could work. But for the most part the rhythms that are expected within changüí are going to be that sound of the scraper and the maracas and the bongó improvising and the marímbula attacking on beat two and beat four, or four-and. If that's not happening, people cannot necessarily dance to it. But that is traditional Changüí. That is very different from Elio Revé.

What Elio Revé did, and what is one aspect of his genius is to take what he heard the tres playing and to put it in the violins. His group was a charanga. So he had the violins play exactly what the tres was playing, that kind of montuno section, guajeo or tumbao, we call it. And then he had a wooden güiro [Sings]. And that was kind of doing the part that you would hear in traditional changüí, and then he was taking riffs from the bongó and playing them on his timbales. So he took elements from traditional changüí and stuck them into his modern group and called it changüí.

When it comes to the tres, changüí has these very interesting obligatory rhythmic and harmonic things that have to happen between each line of text. So if the melody goes [Plays a melody]. Before I go to the next line, I have to go like this [Plays an arpeggiated vamp]. And those arpeggiations are called in local parlance pasos de calle, which might translate something like “stepping in the street,” but it could also be a changing of the term passacaglia [the 17th century Spanish musical form], or something of that era in European music. There is none of that in Revé’s music; He doesn't do that. So that is probably the thing that keeps it from going all the way changüí.

Then there are the themes of his songs. You listen to Revé’s early pieces from the ‘50s. The song will start off, and the guy will say, “Muchachos, where are you going?” “I’m going to Yateras,” which is where the coffee came from. And then the song will start with the montuno in the violin, and the voice will go exactly with the violin, just like the voice would go with the tres. So he took those elements into a modern context and ran with it.

So Revé starts doing this in the 1950s.

Yes. But there's one other person, a key intermediary between Revé and the tradition. That’s Luis Martinez Griñan. His nickname was Lilí. He was a piano player, originally from Guantánamo, and the guy was a total genius. He was eclectic, into a lot of stuff. He had a degree in fingerprint technology. He had done a correspondence course. He spoke a number of languages. He played classical music. He played jazz. He worked on the naval base and he would slip people money to watch his shift so he could sneak inside and play piano instead of doing his job. He had a band that he had inherited from a great piano player name Conchita Bravo. There was sort of a salon of pianists that included her, the great pianist Pedro “Peruchín” Jústiz and Lilí.

Lilí took Conchita’s band over around 1927. She had started it in 1922. They played on the radio, and Lili would play Chopin mixed with Cuba and son. He would play jazz. He transcribed bass players and would write down what they played. And apparently, I think it was in 1944, the great tres player and bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez sent for him. He sent him a telegram and said, “I want you to join my band.” And that is when Lilí Martínez went to Havana from Guantánamo. And when he started to play in Arsenio's recordings, he started adding patterns that a tres player would play from changüí, from nengón and other things. And he mixed that with a little bit of jazz, a little bit of classical music. He developed this very unique personal sound, which then became the piano sound that every piano player imitated.

That's fascinating.

If you look at the great Arsenio Rodriguez recordings of the 1940s and early ‘50s, he is name-checked all the time. They always say “Lili!” They called him La Perla de Oriente “the pearl of eastern Cuba.” And then he would do his solo, and if you listen to his solos, you hear really intricate classical piano stuff thrown over a Cuban groove a little bit of jazz here and there. It’s very impressionistic, very unique, and I think this gets back to the expectations of the development of the music. So a guy like Lilí comes out of Guantánamo having this unique mix of chops and flavor and just a great personal vibe, and then that becomes a standard by which people have to play. Now everybody does that style.

For instance, if you go to Guantánamo and you listen to the way people play the bongó, that's because they are largely copying a guy who just passed away, whose name is Andrés Fistó Cobas or Taveras. And Taveras it really is the person who personalized and made this incredible style that everyone copies. Before him there was a guy called Arturo Latamblé who played bongó with Chito Latamblé, his brother. And Taveras was kind of copying everything that Arturo had done, so you really have to look at this as a progression. It's kind of like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Robert Johnson. Anytime somebody comes up with something great, "That's it. I’ve got learn how to do that.”

That also reminds me of Mande griot music. The instrumentalists play for long periods of time behind singers, and they're always trying to impress each other with their innovative tricks. Over time, each generation absorbed what came before and adding more. This is one reason why Mande music has become so complex.

O.K. So as we map the popularization of changüí in Cuba, it starts with Lili going into Arsenio’s band, and then Elio Revé doing his thing in the ‘50s, and that kind of creates in the popular imagination an idea of what changüí is. Is that about right?

Yeah, and Revé went with it until he passed, and his son is still going with it. Until he passed in 1997 – and I was there in Cuba when he passed – he said, "I'm the father of changüí." By then the music sounded really nothing like changüí, but you could tease out the elements. Revé’s brother played changüí. They’re from Guantánamo. His father played upright bass with a great charanga in Guantánamo. So it's not that Revé was fibbing. He knew the tradition.

Sure. He just took it somewhere else.

And he went around the world with it, and back, many times. So after that, there are other people to like Pancho Amat, who had studied with Chito Latamblé. He had a group called Manguaré, and they recorded some changüí as to get into the ‘70s and ‘80s. And then, finally, Grupo Changüí recorded its first album in, I believe, 1983. And that was the first LP of traditional changüí. That was the professional group, Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo, which had Taveras, José “Nino” Olivares, Carlos Borromeo Planche “Cambrón”, Pedro Speck, Chito Latamblé, and Antonio “Ñico Ya” Cisneros. His nickname was Nico Ya. He's the guy who would shout “Ya” when the music starts. Every time the tres comes in [Sings] he would shout “Ya!” That's how he got his nickname.

[ identifies the founding members of Grupo Changüí as: Arturo Latamblé Veranes (director, bongo), ReyesChitoLatamblé Veranes (tres), Pedro Speck (marimbula), Santiago Reyes “Chago” (guayo), Justo Kindelán (vocals, maracas).] This was the original group in 1945 ☺

But that album did not come out until 1983.

Was it popular? Well known?

This is a good question. I'm not exactly sure how well-diffused Egrem Records was in Cuba. I can't speak to that. But definitely that record was huge for people who were interested in Cuban music around the world. There was a sort of a sister, companion record to that, a double album that Danilo Orozco had made of La Familia Valera Miranda, who have since gone on to become major stars of the world music scene from Santiago. They did nengón and other styles that are kind of close to changüí. They are from the San Luis region near Santiago. Orozco recorded them playing the ground harp and songs from the war of independence, 1895-98. He documented really incredible songs from that time period.

For people who are interested in folkloric Cuban music, those records were like a link to the past that connected a lot of dots for us. And when Grupo Changüí came to the States in 1989 to play at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, people who were into Cuban music just went nuts over it. They traveled from all over to Washington to see these guys playing changüí.

The band had changed. Some new people had come in. One of the changes that was really obvious is that the music was really, really fast. There was a new sound in the band, a new singer named Arsenio Martinez, who is now in Canada. There was a new tres player in the band, Nino Mendoza, and the tempo of the music was really, really, really fast. There's a good video you can see of that on YouTube.

What's the connection between changüí and son?

Well, they are related. They're not dissimilar to the point where you would say, “No way are they related.” But they are just not governed by the same principles. Originally, when I formulated this and did the research and looked at it, I encountered this concept that the music moves from the east to the west, kind of like the music in New Orleans coming up north. But when you really look at it, you see that all along the U.S. eastern seaboard you had all these people playing solo piano stuff and there were all these brass bands outside of New Orleans. Things didn't really happen in exactly that sequence as you might expect.

So the idea of the son only moving from east to west, and the original forms becoming gradually modernized, also flies against the historical evidence. There was a military ensemble that was part of the permanent army that would take musicians around and they would be exposed to local music and bring it back to the capital with them. But in reality, people were moving from west to east, because the east was kind of like the Mississippi Delta. There was a lot of land that was available and cheap, and if you didn't have a lot of money, or if you were a person of color trying to start over, going east made a lot more sense than trying to go to the capital. Now that just throws into question the whole idea of whether the music went from east to west or west to east.

Now what does happen in the west is that other elements get into the music. Son, as played in Santiago, before it gets to Havana, might be closer to changüí, but the son that we know as a genre has these elements in it that are not related to son or changüí. That would be the clavé, which I think comes from rumba, and which I would argue makes the music lesssyncopated. Because it is really regulating where everything has to happen. You have the addition of the guitar, the upright bass, the trumpet. You still have the bongo, but the feeling of the music, and the rhythmic orientation of the music is much more stabilized, much more static. There's a lot less room for improvisation,

Then on another level, the lyrical content is not really talking about the history or local phenomenon anymore. It is using more generalized topics, whereas changüí has really stayed a local phenomenon – what's happening in Guantánamo; what is the guantanamero’s take on this or that; how is this philosophy applied to a particular topic? Changüí songs talk a lot about changüí. What's the best changüí? Who are the best musicians? Who dances the best? Who had the best party? Was there a pig there? Who got in a fight with who? That's a piece of changüí that you don't really have in son.

That you could argue that in the 1940s with the great conjuntos like Conjunto Modelo or Arsenio Rodriguez, you had some stuff in there that spiced it up and talked about some of these things, but it’s much more abstract. And who is putting that in there? It’s Lilí Martínez. Arsenio recorded a lot of his songs. There’s one called “Cero guapos en Yateras,” which talks about some tough guys who got beaten up and couldn't go back to Yateras. Arsenio didn't have any experience with Guantánamo. That was all Lili’s influence.

So they're quite different. But how are they similar? They both use the tres. You have the scraper and the shakers. You have a bass instrument. The son at one point used the clay jar [botijuela], and then the marímbula, and ultimately the upright bass. Changüí probably used the ground harp or the botijuela, and then the marimbula. There's really only one group today that uses an upright electric bass in changüí.

Also, the dance choreography is quite different in son. In son, the turns can happen over the head, there's a lot more fancy footwork. In changüí, you're basically staying here and all the turns are below the shoulders. It's a much simpler dance, and it doesn't require crazy choreography. And as I said, if you watch the dancing, in some places where it’s played it looks like the kind of jumping up and down and they're off the beat. It looks a lot more country compared to son. Some people will debate with me about son and changüí being the same and I won't be offended by it. I do think they’re similar, but I think that ultimately there's quite a big difference between them.

Finally, I gather that the Cuban government recently made some kind of recognition of changüí. What can you tell me about that?

The U.N. often designates certain musics as “intangible patrimony of humanity.” I think they had been working for a long time to get that declared within Cuba as well, and that was finally put together. I think they announced it at the 2018 Changüí Festival. So that definitely gives it a national standing that perhaps it didn't have before. But the Changüí Festival has been happening bi-annually in Guantánamo for a while. I think the last one was held in 2018, and that was the ninth edition.

Before that, there were festivals that people put together, but now it's a national event, and they'll bring bands from the capital to play popular Cuban dance music, timba. But at the same time they'll have all these different changüí groups. It's a week of solid changüí, and it’s not just bands playing. There are also musical competitions, theoretical colloquia about the genre, workshops on how to dance to it, debates about “if this happens is it still changüí?” It's quite incredible. The first time I ran into that was in 1997, and it was great to see all these young people competing. Who was the best bongo player? Who was the best tres player?

Nowadays, that happens in an official capacity as opposed to sort of an informal thing. It has brought people out of the woodwork, a lot of younger people, and older people who maybe had been overlooked in the past. All this has allowed the genre to thrive and not sort of melt away.

Meanwhile, some really cool things have happened, like mixtures of changüí with rap, changüí mixed with jazz, things that maybe would've been joked about before. People are really personalizing the music and making it their own. It's not a living museum. There are expectations in order to say that you're playing the genre, but within that, it's really quite free, and even people who one would of thought were really conservative are moving outwards. There's a great group called Síncopa Uno. They take a mix of Elio Revé and traditional changüí, so they have the violin and the flute, and then they have the marímbula, bongó and the tres, and the scraper and the shaker and the singers. It's kind of like if Orchestra Aragón played changüí with changüí instruments.

There's a great video of three of the guys from Grupo Changüí playing with the symphony orchestra in Havana, and there are precedents for that. In the 1950s, there was a Cuban composer from Guantánamo, Paulo Ruiz Castellanos, who actually made a symphonic tone poem, an impressionistic orchestral piece of changüí. Throughout history, there have been bubblings of people trying to do these types of things. But you really have to look at it and stick it all together and say, "Wow. I can sort of trace this." But it was so sporadic. Unless you really put it all together, you wouldn’t see what's going on.

One fascinating thing about this part of Cuba is that when the Haitian revolution started in 1789, between 1789 in 1803, roughly 30,000 people came from Haiti to eastern Cuba. And of those 30,000 people, 20,000 were former slaves or free people of color. Only 10,000 of them were of European descent, and even they could've been mixed. So they brought this entire new cultural phenomena to eastern Cuba. French language. French culinary ideas. French architecture, a French concept of coffee production… And that really permeated the region. From that point on you have this whole dance complex genre called the tumba francesa, which uses Haitian drums. There was a cabildo for tumba francesa, so it had a religious and mutual aid society component to it. Just look at people's last names: Revé. It's really Revéaux. There are lots of people with last names like, Rigondeaux, Latamblé, Planché, Duverger, Mustelier. These are all French or Afro- Haitian surnames. So it's a very complicated history.

Then, on top of that, you then had Haitians and Jamaicans coming in after the war of independence, people came from anywhere in the Caribbean to cut sugar cane. Sometimes they would stay and sometimes they would go, but they brought things with them when they went home. The Jamaicans took back the marímbula.

Interesting. So that’s how the so called “rumba box” got into pre-reggae mento music.

Yes. That's how you get mento. And if you go to Haiti, that's how you get twoubadou. Same thing. If you look at a twoubadou video today, it looks like changüí. In Colombia, they brought those instruments to Colombia and they cut cane in Colombia, and that's how you get the sextetos in Colombian music.

So there's this eastern Cuban diaspora, and if you look in the archives, there are fantastic stories of people from different regions of the Caribbean cutting cane in Guantánamo, getting permission on this sugar plantation to throw a party, and who was there, and what was the band. There are historians who've done great work pulling this stuff together so you can see that there are a lot of layers of complexity to the history of this one region.

Son is the national genre of Cuban music from the 1920s on. There's Guillén’s poetry about son, and the government pushes it. It's exported throughout the world as the rumba. But there's also this whole history that you have to acknowledge, the Afro-Haitian and Afro-Caribbean component. It's not convenient for people who write history to acknowledge this, because it gets away from the national project. It gets away from the simplicity of, “This is our country and this is what we do.” But it's undeniable.

And there are other ways in which these migrations manifest in the history. For instance around 1912, there was a political party, the Party of the Independents of Color, and it was largely people of color who had a particular political agenda, which was about seeking improvements for themselves and their society, but they were supressed. At that time, there were laws being passed to ban the numbers of workers who could come from other countries to work inside Cuba. As a consequence of all this, around 1912 there were spontaneous acts of banditry and resistance where plantations were burned and railways destroyed and so forth. The Cuban government sent in the Army to quell the rebellion, and they killed as many as 5,000 or 10,000 people. The U.S. Army was also brought in to protect American interests.There are popular songs that talk about that time period, but a lot of people don't know the meaning of them. There's one song in particular that takes place in Oriente, in a town in Alto Songo and also La Maya. The lyrics say, “They’re burning Alto Songo and La Maya,” which was where these acts of protest were happening and where people were trying to seek a better life for themselves.

So it's a fascinating history in an understudied and misunderstood region. And it's so much like what the Mississippi Delta is to the blues, this region is to Cuban music. You could go on for days about it.

I believe that. But I think we should stop here. Thank you so much, Ben.

It's my pleasure.

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