Interview: Gianluca Tramontana – Changüí: The Sound of Guantánamo (November 2021)

From our personal experience, we never found it too hard to fall for local Cuban music traditions. Still, the musical infatuation is even more gratifying and intense when prompted and guided by a fully committed music researcher, journalist, podcaster and producer like Gianluca Tramontana.

That’s how we approached changüí, the quintessential Eastern Cuba music originated in the early 19th century in the Guantánamo region which anticipated salsa and son. Thanks to the work of Gianluca, who spent two years between 2017 and 2019 in the region, and his The Sound of Guantánamo collection, we are introduced to the style’s origins, development and legacy. Throughout a three-disc box set and an extensive 120-page booklet (published in June by Petaluma Records), we are indeed offered a rhythmic full-immersion into the sound of the Cuban Oriente.

A few months after the release of the impressive work, we had the pleasure  of interviewing its architect, asking him some questions and seizing the opportunity to share some of his insight, dedication and love for changüí with you…

In a few words… why changüí and why Guantánamo?

Well, in as few words as possible… It has been said that in Cuba, things start in the East and move West, and so Guantánamo is as far East as you can go. So, it makes it sort of the cradle. Most things that come out of Cuba started in the Eastern part of the country, in the Oriente region. I’ve been visiting Cuba for 30 years and I have always gravitated towards the Oriente side, from Santiago de Cuba, right the way down, over this far till your feet get wet, which would be Baracoa.

That’s the cradle of a lot of Cuban culture and connected to that, obviously, is that changüí is a roots music. Ethnomusicologists go backwards and forwards whether changüí is the roots of son like the Buena Vista Social Club‘s son. I’m not going to get involved in that. I’m not an ethnomusicologist. Many seem to think so, but regardless of that, changüí is a roots music and like roots music it has its terroir. Wine drinkers have this phrase terroir, whereby when you drink a glass of wine, that glass of wine tells you everything about that region, everything about the hill that came from, the community, the weather, the soil, the everything… And changüí music has that same thing. We can read history books which tell us that Guantánamo province was sugar cane and it was coffee plantations. That’s what is in the history books. That is true, but you know that the coffee and the sugar didn’t walk to the ships. Bloody hands and broken backs put the coffee and the sugar on those ships and those bloody hands and broken backs belonged to people that are invisible. They’re not written about. They’re not heard about. We don’t know their names, we don’t know their faces, we don’t know anything about them. But there are songs they left behind. Each of these people had a wife or a husband or a girlfriend, a mother, daughters, aunties… They had a community and they danced. They belong to a community and changüí music is their story. A lot of musicians in this collection don’t have a memento of their grandparents, not a photograph, not even something they can hold, but they have their songs and they have their style of music. That’s why changüí is so special to me. You listen to the songs, they tell you everything about the region, they tell you everything about the people. It’s like the terroir for wine drinkers, it tells you everything and it’s straight from them.

On a slightly lesser note, changüí hasn’t really been documented much. I’m not the first person to go there and record it, but it hasn’t really been brought above ground. So journalistically, it’s important to do that. But honestly, the real reason is that changüí is the real history. History in the books is from the top down, while history from the bottom up is in the songs and that’s in changüí.

Despite its importance and influence over other Cuban traditional styles like son and salsa, changüí is possibly one of the less popular or popularised ones outside the country. Can you spot any reason behind this?

You could probably ask 30 people and get 30 different answers. I would have to add that there are two types of changüí. What I recorded is traditional changüí and I would have to say that not only is it not particularly well known outside of Cuba, it’s actually not particularly well known outside of Guantánamo. Even in Cuba, even in the next province across, in Santiago de Cuba, if you talk to people and ask them about changüí they will say Elio Revé, Elito Revé and Los Van Van, Issac Delgado might come up as well… They are considered changüí and they are really, really good, actually. But they’re not traditional changüí. They’re sort of modern, urban changüí which is followed in and outside of Cuba. They have trumpets, drums and keyboards. It’s fantastic music and I love those records. For example, Elito Revé is very, very popular and he plays to big crowds and Los Van Van are super famous and successful and have traveled the world, but that would be like if you talk about blues and ask people what it is and people would say the Allman Brothers or the Rolling Stones or Joe Bonamassa. Which is blues, but the changüí I recorded was sort of like the Robert Johnson end of the spectrum. So, most people consider blues the Rolling Stones, etc. But you know, Robert Johnson and Son House are the roots of that and that’s what I recorded. I just wanted to make that distinction.

So, why is the traditional changüí that I recorded not sort of hip and cool like salsa? Well, you know, kids want to listen to reggaeton, they want to listen to salsa. Kids want to listen to really cool stuff and sadly, changüí is considered like their grandparents’ music. I hate to say that out loud, but yes, most traditional music is not listened to by young people. Most traditional music is not considered hip and cool. I would have to say that I have turned young people in Guantanamo on to traditional changüí. There’s actually a hip-hop musician in Guantanamo who’s brilliant. He’s a graffiti artist and hip-hop freestylist and I sat him down and said, ‘yo, all those hip-hop rhythms you’re listening to and all that free-styling, you have it on your doorstep! You have much better rhythms than those American ones and just as cool freestyling, too. I turned on some of the recordings that I made, and he started throwing changüí on Sunday evenings. He rented a little space and started throwing changüí events. So, I can’t really spot any reason behind that generation gap. It’s considered ‘old people’s music’ really. Sadly, that’s what the young folks think. They’re wrong of course, it’s hip as heck, that stuff!

I guess it wasn’t too hard to get excited and passionate about the Guantánamo region and its culture. Anyway, was there any particular spark that let you fall in love with it and spurred you to set the project in motion? 

I first heard changüí more than fifteen years ago in a radio station in Manzanillo, Cuba. I was waiting to go on air… Fidel was making one of his speeches… We never went on air because Fidel’s speeches used to be quite long and someone played this cassette tape of traditional changüí music. I had no idea who it was made by. I had never heard anything like that before. Generally, Cuban music metric is on the beat, straight time, it’s on the clave… One, two, three, four, straight time. It doesn’t have syncopation and it doesn’t have what we often refer to as swing. But this cassette tape of changüí, of traditional changüí I heard, it just blew my mind. It was everything opposite to the Cuban music I had heard until that point, and no one could tell me anything about it.

This music was syncopated that swung off hinges. It was loose and tight, and it had really weird, syncopated rhythms like a three-legged mule, and it danced like the three-legged mule. I don’t know if that’s the right metaphor, but it was really like that. It was call-and-response. The most bizarre thing I’d ever heard. It was loose and yet tight, it was sort of self-taught, but virtuoso at the same time and no one could tell me anything about it! In all the time I was in Cuba, no one could tell me anything about changüí. Everyone told me about Elio Revé, Elito Revé and Los Van Van and a few other modern changüí artists like on the Rolling Stones’ end of the spectrum, not the Robert Johnson’s. Then in the States and on my travels, I would ask people about traditional changüí, but I kept getting the same modern changüí names. That was enough: I’ve been a music journalist for over twenty years, so anything that is unknown, I want to know about. Plus, the music was just phenomenal. 

So, I suppose it was a buildup. I was kind of giving up on it really. No one could tell me anything about changüí. Then, I went to Havana with Arturo O’Farrill in 2016. He was taking his father’s ashes to Cuba. Chico O’Farrill was his father who died in exile and Arturo was taking his ashes to Havana to repatriate them. So, I accompanied him. My partner at the time, Kate Pela, was working with Arturo and we went out together. I started meeting people from Guantánamo. I met a tres player called Cotó [Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi], who is not a changüí, but a jazz player who played with Arturo, but he was from changüí country and he was raised around changüí. That sparked something in me. I  said, you know, I should probably do it. I went out, met the daughter of a legendary changüí player in Havana, Cotó introduced me to her and I went out to Guantánamo in the beginning of 2017, really without wanting to make a record. Honestly, I was thinking of doing a short piece for NPR, something like ‘Guantánamo Province, not just the Bay’. So, I was initially planning to spend 10 days or maybe two weeks in Guantánamo, but I realized when I was out there that when I was talking to people about changüí and asked them for CDs, nobody had any. Then, I realized that those musicians had not been recorded. So, I started recording them myself, just for some background music for the possible NPR piece. That was when I sent Steve Rosenthal a clip. I knew him because I had worked at his Magic Shop recording studio in New York 30 years prior. So, I sent him a little clip and said, ‘Does this sound odd? Is the balance right? Are the maracas too loud?’ He emailed back to me saying, ‘call me as soon as you get back, this sounds really, really amazing’. And he’s the one who suggested we make a record. That’s the long answer to the question.

The short one I suppose is… The three things that sparked it were… What is this music? Being around Guantánamo and having met the tres player in Havana with O’Farrill and Steve Rosenthal, who told me this was amazing, and I should explore it further.

I read that you’ve been travelling to Cuba since the 1990s. How much of the country has changed in the last three decades, also considering its music scene(s)? 

This would be a long, long, long answer. But, I’ll say this much, though. Here’s the misleading thing about Cuba. You know, we talk about Cuba as if it were one country. Cuba’s very small. It is under half the size of Britain. It’s only got 11 million people living there. It’s a tiny island. It changed the world, but it’s a tiny island. However, you know, there’s only one main road that connects the Eastern part to the Western part of the islands and there’s not particularly much infrastructure. That’s misleading. It’s actually a really huge island. It’s possibly the biggest island that you can ever go to. Not geographically, just in terms of culture. It’s full of many, many, many microclimates. Musical microclimates, social microclimates, different cultures, different foods, different everything. Traveling 10 miles in Cuba is like traveling 200 miles anywhere else in the world. It changes that much. Most reporting from Cuba is done from Havana and most discussion and talking about Cuba is actually done by Americans in Havana. That has changed hugely. I just remember what Havana was like 30 years ago and what it’s like today. It sorts of looks like any other Latin American country when you visit it. But, once you get past the camera crews of Havana and you go out into Cuba, you see a very, very different island altogether. It’s like I said, very many microclimates.

So how it’s changed over the 30 years: hugely in certain places, especially Havana, for example, and then other parts of the island, are just sort of much the same as they were 30 years ago. You know, Baracoa, for example, I go to Baracoa from time to time, I have close friends there. That’s completely different to what it was even 10 years ago. That is an actual tourist resort right now. 10 years ago, it was not at all.

So, yeah, how has it changed? Anywhere from very little to an awful lot, I have to say it that way.

Is there any Cuban musician or band you are particularly fond of and would like to suggest we discover and listen to?

You know what? This is a cop out… That’s too subjective. Everyone’s a musician in Cuba, so I’m going to pass on this question, only because there are just too many to get into. I mean, they’re all phenomenal. I can say this, in Cuba, musicians are employees of the state. So, to become an employee of the state or of the government and being on a salary, you go through bootcamp basically. So, all musicians are phenomenally great musicians. Pick a genre, pull any name out of the hat, and they will be really, really good.

It goes without saying that to meet and work with such amazing artists is already a unique experience on its own. But was there any highlight or anecdote, which occurred in those two years, that you’d like to share with us?

Oh, that is a cruel question… I’ve been a journalist for 20 years and, you know, I’ve heard so many songwriters saying to me that they can’t pick a favorite song. It’s like picking a favourite out of their kids. And I always thought that was a lame answer. But now, I’m sort of in that position.

Every day there was one, but I can say a couple of things. This project is two years of highlights, everyone involved in it became my family, really. We became very, very close, very intimate. With the older people, I know their sons and grandsons. With the younger ones, I know their fathers and grandparents. So, just to share my life with them and have them share their life and their culture with me was extremely humbling and profoundly moving. I found out what generosity really means, but you wanted anecdotes. OK, I can trot out a couple or three…

Changüí is a lineage. It’s an oral tradition carried through the generations. A lot of the musicians on the collection didn’t learn changüí, they were born into changüí. They either learn from their parents or grandparents who learnt from their great grandparents. Their children play with them in bands as well as in groups. So, it is a lineage. It’s an oral tradition. I’m going to bring up two of them, Mikikí [Francisco Fernández Mikiki] and Pedro Vera. Mikikí is a phenomenal tres player who plays with many, many groups. I guess he is in his late 50s right now and he was born in a remote sugarcane cutting community. His community was wooden shacks, kerosene lanterns, and they would cut sugarcane all day. His father was a hotshot changüí musician who would play music in the mountains at changüíses [traditional celebrations] for three to five days at a time. For Christmas and New Year’s, it could be a week at a time. Mikikí has 17 siblings and all of them play music. So, he grew up chopping sugarcane with his family, with his brothers and his father, singing changüí songs to each other while cutting and stacking the sugarcane. Then Mikikí moved to Guantánamo City and became quite a hotshot himself on the changüí circuit in Guantánamo City, while his brothers stayed up in the sugarcane region. They still cut sugarcane. They still work the fields and they have their own group. So, Mikikí and I went up there. We hitchhiked up there. We got there, actually the final bit on the back of a tractor, to visit his brothers. We stayed there a couple of days, and I recorded his brothers who have a group called Melquíades Y Su Changüí. It was an event, an occasion: they were so happy to see each other. They only live about eight miles away, but in Cuba, eight miles still takes half a day to get there. It can literally take five hours to get to travel six to eight miles around there. So, it was a real event. You know, the rum… well rum always flows in changüí circles. But, you know, we hung out in the fields and they had a family reunion changüí-style, where Mikikí was playing the tres, and we were just drinking and partying. I wrote about it like a collision of good vibes, cheap rum and 100-degree heat. Everyone was so happy to play music together. It was just a wonderful family reunion. There was a song they made up on the spot about me. You can hear it in the album, it is called “De Aquí Pa’ Italia“. One of the singers, one of Mikikí brothers, came up to me and he asked my name. But he couldn’t rhyme anything with my name, so he threw it out to the other singers and the musicians, ‘Hey morena, que tu dices? (What you got guys?)’ and Mikikí yells out while he’s playing the tres ‘from here to Italy – de aquí pa’ Italia’. Then they start doing a call-and-response song kind of about me and I like that one because you hear how a song is created in the moment. It’s literally like they are building a plane in midair while flying it. That’s just one of the wonderful moments on it.

There’s another great tune in the collection called ‘El Viaje Lo Pago Yo‘ (I’ll pay for the trip). It’s so supernatural, that song. They really dig deep in that and they drag the spirits out by the collar. A lot of the changüíseros are of the Santero faith. So, they play like they’re trying to bring the spirits in, and they really want to do that in that track. Another thing I’d have to say about ‘El Viaje Pago Yo’ is that it is essentially a song about a party thrown by Elio Revé, who’s a legend, he’s the one who turned changüí into a modern urban music form. He added flutes, drums and horns and really made it modern. That song is actually about the party for him. It talks about all those changüíseros coming down from the hill to celebrate, all those changüíseros who are actually dead. Mikikí told me the song is about the final trip, but you can make your own mind up. It’s either about that or it’s about the birthday party. Whatever it’s about, they drag the spirits out by the collar from the center of the earth on that one. So that was another amazing moment. It’s a perfect illustration of what music is about, of what music is for. Music is not for closed doors, it’s not meant to be done in private. Music is for everybody. It’s for the community to share. It’s an open circle and whatever goes, goes. 

The third anecdote is about another changüísero called Pedro Vera. His photograph is on the cover of the collection. Pedro Vera is in his late 70s now. Seventy-six, seventy-seven… somewhere around there… Also Pedro Vera didn’t learn changüí, he was born into changüí. He grew up in the hills in a plantation community. His father was a hotshot changüísero tresero [tres player] and Pedro, when he was an eight-year-old, would jump on the back of his father’s horse when his father would go and play changüí. That was his earliest recollection. He has twenty-two brothers and sisters and he carries his father’s tradition with him. Also his sons, Pedro Vera’s sons, play in his group. So, he comes from all this family playing changüí and his kids do as well. Anyway, Pedro Vera took me to see his father, who was 97 at the time, and it was a really beautiful experience. It took us a while to get there. His father was not well, so he was staying at his daughter’s, Pedro’s sister, outside of Guantánamo City. He was dressed up for the occasion. A lot of his family came to hear him speak about the days of his youth when he was a hotshot changüísero tresero and just stories of ‘back in the day.’ To spend an afternoon with a link to history was just phenomenal. After that, Pedro Vera and his father, just the two of them, played music together and it was very touching. They did not play a changüí song, they played a montuno song, which is in the collection. It’s called ‘Hace Me Falta Una Negra‘.

Another time, me and Mikikí went to see a legend of the mountains. They call him Yu, (Armando Rey), who was considered a tresero de raíz (from the roots). He lived in a shack in a remote part of an already remote part of the hills. It was quite hard to reach him. He lived all alone in this little shack, no water, no electricity, just by a stream. He never even turned on an electric light in his lifetime. He was just sitting there as an old man smoking his pipe. He was 90. I recorded him and he told me stories about the mountains as well.

At the same time, considering the situation and conditions of the island and its people, I’m pretty sure that working there wasn’t always a bed of roses. What were the main obstacles that you had to face?

Not many, actually. Well, none musically. There was certainly no problem with any of the musicians. However, I would have to say that getting to a lot of the places was challenging. Some of the places are quite remote and there’s no transport. Again, even 10 miles in Cuba, it can take half a day to get there. It involves getting up at dawn, literally at 4.30AM to wait for a camión. They are like covered trucks well past their sell-by-date that have seen better days. You can hear them long before you see them. They literally sound like you’re throwing a toolkit down a flight of stairs and you just cram in with as many people as can fit on there. How many people can you fit in them? Too many. So, yeah, getting there was quite difficult, sometimes I’d have to hitchhike, sometimes I would jump on the back of a tractor, as I did with Mikikí.

I suppose, with the recording part of it, the challenge was that I did not want to be a producer. I didn’t want to arrange anything. I wanted to record the musicians the way they usually play. I wanted to record them the way they usually sit, the way they usually interact. I wanted to be a journalist and document. I didn’t want to be a producer and arrange or suggest. The challenges for that are that musicians, when they play together, don’t play in a way that makes sense if you’re recording them. If I would arrange them, I would maybe put the bongo player further away or put the tres player a bit closer. I’d arranged them in a different way… But that’s not the way musicians play. Musicians like playing in a circle or in a horseshoe shape or an open circle where they look at each other and react to each other. They bounce off each other, give each other cues. They interact with each other on a very deep level and I did not want to interfere with that. So, I had to work around that. So, the way they naturally sat was the way I recorded them, and if that didn’t make sense to my microphone, I had to make it make sense and had to work around that. I suppose that was a challenge, but generally there were no challenges with the music.

Then, I was living there, I didn’t just go and leave. I sort of became part of the community and everyone on this record has become my family, literally my family. I keep them up to date on everything that is happening. I sort of didn’t have any trouble with anybody because I was living there,  they were my friends and my family.

So, the main thing, I guess, was getting there and the actual technical side of recording. You hear a lot of the stuff we just kept there in the background. You can hear roosters all over the place. You can hear pigs honking and roosters crowing and all sorts of things.

On a more “personal” perspective… How was it to go through and re-work all the material you collected and recorded in Cuba once you were back in New York? Did you experience any alienation or detachment feeling?

I kept going back, actually. Changüí and the changüí community became such a part of me. It was a two-year period I kept going back. In the curating and writing of it, I did a lot of that while I was out there for the specific reason of not being detached. A lot of the ‘thought’ process, the curation, the framing and the contextualizing of it, I made sure to do on Guantánamo’s soil for the reason that doing so I wouldn’t get detached.

I spent as much time there as possible and I did as much work as possible, at least in the writing and the contextualizing and the positioning it in terms of narrative and storyline and what the project was about. Then, the actual detachment and being in New York helped with things like sequencing and choosing of the tracks.

How many songs/recordings did you have to leave out from the collection because of space or time limitations? Is there any “left out” song that you are particularly attached to? 

I came back with about 250 songs or thereabouts and there are a few I had to leave out…You know fifty-one tracks out of 250 means I left an awful lot out, right? 

There were certain tracks that killed me to leave out. There’s a version of ‘Toca Marímbula, Olivares‘ that was recorded by Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo. They played at an old folks’ home one early morning and after that I recorded them playing ‘Toca Marímbula, Olivares’ and they nailed it. They were really on fire, they just sort of did it like a gig and sadly, there was some technical issue, something wrong with the panning or the microphones…anyway, for whatever reason we couldn’t use that. I actually went back and re-recorded them because there were a couple of tracks that I felt should be on the CD. So, I had to leave out an awful lot. It was horrible. I’ve done some public radio and there’s a saying in public radio about when you’re editing, you have to kill your darlings. And yeah, I had to kill my darlings. Bad, or sad, rather.

To record and release the collection you could count on the magic touch of Steve Rosenthal. How and how much did he influence and address the final outcome?

Thank you for asking about Steve Rosenthal, a hero of the whole project! Frankly, if it wasn’t for Steve Rosenthal… I would say it this way…. It’s because of Steve Rosenthal that this project exists, to begin with. As said, I was just going to knock together a short NPR piece, I’d never made a record before. Steve Rosenthal is very experienced. I mean, he used to own an iconic recording studio [the Magic Shop], but he is also extremely experienced with field recordings, he has worked on many, many. He was hired personally by Alan Lomax, who’s sort of like the godfather of these types of recordings. There was a series of Alan Lomax’s recordings that came out in the ’90s on which he worked to clean them up and restore them. He has won four Grammys for restoring different archives and Erroll Garner‘s was one of them. Let’s say it this way, if it wasn’t for Steve Rosenthal, I would still be clutching the shoe-box full of these recordings on my deathbed. Telling people with my dying breath, ‘my nearest and dearest, what I could almost have done…’ That’s what would have happened if it were not for Steve Rosenthal. The whole thing is really because of him.

While, as far as the influence, the first thing I have to say about Steve is that he’s an egoless producer. He has produced the likes of Lou Reed, and he can produce, and has produced very complex rock albums where he uses machines and contraptions and you know that he’s working as a producer. But Steve first and foremost, he works for the song. In this case, he has little enough of an ego that he does not mind being transparent. It’s a magic touch and it’s an invisible touch. He understood these recordings immediately and everything he did was to bring out the instruments and to make us (him, me and the mix engineer Ed McEntee) invisible. He influenced the recordings by just making them sound phenomenal. He made them sound like they were recorded in Guantánamo, Cuba, on porches, in living rooms, in fields, in backyard patios. Like the musicians were all together playing at the same time, having fun, dancing and singing along with people around them. Which is exactly the way it happened.

First of all, he sequenced the records, all three CDs, which was amazing because I was having a hard time. But also, he (together with Michael Graves, who did the mastering) made them sound the way that I heard the music when I was out there. He did not want to change the photograph, the oral photograph: if there were roosters crowing, there are roosters crowing on the recordings. If there were pigs oinking, there are pigs oinking on the recordings. The way he produced it, you are there listening to changüíseros right in front of you. That’s what it sounds like and that’s the invisible magic touch of Steve Rosenthal.

Your music career, experience and expertise span over 30 years and embrace a wide range of genres and styles from all over the world. Besides the project dedicated to changüí and Guantánamo, what are the other ones you are most fond of and why?

I don’t really know, you know. That’s a long time, isn’t it? Thirty years…. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Well, I love traveling and talking to people about music. I love discovering different cultures. So, I have to say there’s something that combines the both of them. I love writing and listening to and exploring roots music because that is the direct way that I personally understand a culture.

Other projects I’m fond of… For the last bunch of years, I’ve had a radio show on community radio. It’s on Resonance FM in London and Radio Free Brooklyn in New York. I’ve had this radio show called Sitting with Gianluca where I converse with musicians about…music, really. I pride myself as a journalist of not asking any questions that are not to do but music and the making of music, the writing of music and the recording of music. So, Sitting with Gianluca gives me the opportunity to sit and talk to really talented musicians about music, about the creative process, I really enjoy that. That is probably my love. Also, I bring it with me on my travels: I do it on the road. I’ve done it in Italy, I’ve done it in Brazil. For example, I had Kassin, a very, very well-known Brazilian producer.

Sitting with Gianluca is my girlfriend, I guess. It’s sort of my guilty pleasure: I love talking to interesting artists about their music. Conversationalism, I hope, at its best 

Are you already working on or planning any other remarkable projects like The Sound Of Guantánamo?

I would love to. If you’ve got one, send it my way. I’d really love to do another one of these, but I’ve only just put this one to bed. This has only been out for a month. But yes, I have dreams and hopefully, I’ll be able to plug away at one of them.


Photo ©: Gianluca Tramontana