Blog: Guantanamera

Burt Ross

I can honestly say without any qualification that if I never hear the song “Guantanamera” again, it will not be a moment too soon. To put it another way, if I ever hear that song again, I might have to jump off the highest bridge in Malibu, which unfortunately will accomplish nothing since we do not have anything resembling the Golden Gate Bridge here. Please let me explain my strong reaction to this Cuban ditty.

I just returned from a boat excursion in the British Virgin Islands with my good friend Phil from Malibu and his friend Frank from Florida. Now, Frank is a God fearing, friendly, caring guy with just one flaw, albeit not a minor one. You see, Frank is obsessed with the tune “Guantanamera.” He sings it, he hums it, he whistles it all day long and, to boot, he doesn’t know more than the first few words of the song, whether in the original Spanish or its English translation, so all I hear is, “Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera.” This repetition was sheer torture, and the words were sounding more and more like Guantanamo, which was where I was starting to wish I were. 

When Frank is not wailing out those three words over and over and over again, he needs to tell me about the song, although I never asked. He reminds me of the guy in “Forrest Gump” who can’t stop talking about shrimp. Frank explains to me that the lyrics, most of which he does not know, were written by the Cuban poet Jose Marti, that the song is about a Cuban peasant girl, that the Cuban people consider it their most patriotic song, that when he was in Cuba, all the women on his tour stood up and belted out — you guessed it — “Guantanamera,” that the Sandpipers first sang the song in 1966 and so forth and so on. I have unfortunately become an expert on something I care to know nothing about.

Finally, I came up with what seemed like a great strategy to distract Frank. I suggested he listen to some of my favorite music. I played Barbra Streisand singing “Something Wonderful” from the “King and I.” If Ms. Streisand did nothing else in her life other than sing this one song, her life would have been well worth it, or at least that’s my opinion. Her command of this great tune and moving lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein is absolute perfection. Frank barely listened to it and stared at me as if to say, “This does not begin to hold a candle to ‘Guantanamera.’”

I don’t give up easily, and knowing that Frank likes country and western music, I played “Girl from North Country” sung by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. The romantic lyrics by Dylan move my heart, and somehow these two totally different voices sound perfect when joined together. Dylan and Cash alternate verses and then combine in a wonderful blend. Again I got this dismissive look from Frank as if to say, “Is that all you have?”

I decided to play my trump card and let Frank listen to the famous duet in “Pearl Fisher” with Robert Merrill and Jussi Bjorling. As a tear rolled down my cheek, so moved was I by these magnificent voices, I heard Frank say in an accusatory tone, “Is that opera?” 

It was time to change my approach. “Frank,” I offered, “do you have any favorites other than ‘Guantanamera?’” I was now willing to try a long shot. Frank seemed quite excited and then played for me a Kenny Rogers song about holding and folding cards. 

There is a time for all of us to surrender, to let go, to hoist up the white flag, and so that is exactly what I did. “Frank,” I conceded, “you can go back to ‘Guantanamera.’”