A trove of field recordings open up new perspective on music from Cuba

Complain all you want about the erratic mid-fi sonic characteristics of most field recordings. Throw in some outrage and indignation (often deserved) about the exploitation of unsophisticated artists from rural places.

At least acknowledge this much: These field recordings can expand the lens through which we look at a culture. When solidly researched and presented with contextual information, anthropological works fill in details missing from commercial recording projects. Frequently these works contain the DNA of longstanding (and often threatened) traditions. They link us to values and ideas that are, incredibly, still alive. They teach about how music operates in other cultures — as a basis for social connection and a generation-to-generation conduit for cultural heritage.

Today’s example: A three-disc collection of changui music recorded in recent years in the Guantanamo region of Eastern Cuba. If there’s a place that might benefit from a wider lens, it’s Cuba, where street protests are going on for the first time in decades, and the entire society seems on edge. And if there’s a place within Cuba needing some rebranding, it’s the Guantanamo region, which most Americans know for its naval base – where 9/11 suspects have been held. The entire region is more than that, of course; it has agricultural areas and mountains, and a strong culture that is distinct from that in other parts of the island nation.

A rural offshoot of Cuba’s foundational son rhythm, changui has existed in some form for nearly 150 years. It began as the music of slaves who worked various jobs related to sugar cane, and though the word changui has multiple interpretations (hoax, trick), today it’s commonly understood to mean a “party,” often lasting three days or more – an experience that’s closer to a rave than a concert.

The music at these gatherings centers around ongoing, ever-morphing interplay between instrumentalists and singers. There are expansive ad-libbed vocal volleys between a lead singer and a small harmonizing-on-the-fly backing chorus. Beneath that, a parallel instrumental commentary happens between the guitar-like tres, bongo, metallic güiro and a bass instrument called the marimbula (above) – a large box with kalimba-like metal tongs pitched for maximum bone-rattling low notes. The songs are built on structural elements from Spanish canción and rhythms from Africa, but their energy and persuasive power is fully Cuban. In some ways, changui is quaint music, defiantly un-fancy and acoustic; it can resemble Brazilian samba de roda in terms of intimacy, and the way its percolating grooves evolve over long stretches of time.

Changui: The Sound of Guantanamo is the brainchild of journalist Gianluca Tramontana (above holding recorder), who first encountered the music on a trip in 2017. As he writes in the extensive accompanying book, he encountered artists who’d never traveled beyond the region, and whose only experience was playing for those marathon parties. Intrigued by this still-thriving yet globally invisible musical style, Tramontana returned in 2019 armed with portable recording equipment. He visited towns in the mountainous region of Yateras (which some historians say is the birthplace of the music) and Guantánamo City, where it migrated from the mountains in the early 1900s.

Tramontana and his small team caught music at street parties and in living rooms. They happened onto a few spontaneous jam sessions and coordinated other performances to bring key musicians together. They recorded revered elders as well as bands that have managed to record and tour – notably Grupo Changui de Guantanamo, the most established entity on the set. The audio quality is respectable throughout; where some field recordings err on the side of documentary distance, this one puts listeners in the center of a swirl of activity, with sharp drum cracks responding to the agitated polyrhythmic improvisations from the singers, and incidental noises an expected part of the package. The proximity underscores the spontaneity of the proceedings – it’s possible to trace the ways each participant reacts to, and then instinctively furthers, the evolving sound.

There’s a lot of music here, probably too much; a single disc’s worth of music from Guantanamo would have had more impact. Still, the set’s timing is extraordinary. At the exact moment news reports show previously unthinkable protests and the real-time-rapid transformations within Cuban society, along comes a joyous music from the deep past, that has endured out of the spotlight for a very long time and has something to say about the importance of partying. Cuba is complicated.

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