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Punto Guajiro: Universal Music
Fusion is trendy in contemporary music, but Cuba has been blending its world famous folk music for centuries.

The humble Cuban folk music, known as "punto guajiro" mixes Andalusian, Canarian, African and the island's peasant tunes, deserving to be quoted as an early evidence of music fusion.

Cuban folk music is widely popular and it's not only belonging to the countryside, but to cities as well, maybe because of the heavy human displacements to urban areas alongside history.

I still remember when, as a child, my mother took me to the Centro Gallego de La Habana to pay the hospital monthly fees and the trip always ended at Radio Cadena Habana.

It was a small radio station, in the same building, which every afternoon broadcasted live a program she liked a lot: "Guateque de Justo Vega", one of the "punto guajiro" icons.

"Punto guajiro" crossed the borders many years ago, and is also widely famous in Colombia. Cuban folk musicians have been very popular there.

Perhaps, the two more charismatic were Celina González (a.k.a the "Folk Music Queen"), and Polo Montañez, a short-lived singer, who died in an accident and jumped to legend-status.

Montañez was popularly known following one of his first hits, "Guajiro Natural".

"Punto guajiro" singers, mainly those engaged in the "repentist" style (improvising the lyrics, sometimes in a controversy of two or more, have also a great demand in Canary Islands.

It's generally believed that Canarians created the genre from assimilated Andalusian music and with a heavy African influence. It was adapted and adopted by "criollos" (creoles) after its arrival at the largest Caribbean island.

"Punto guajiro" achieved its own differentiated Cuban features since the 17th century. Colonial times were a crystal clear polarization of Cuban society and music wasn't an exception.

The Spanish rulers and the upper classes (traders and landowners) were enjoying at huge ballrooms, theaters and lyceums the Spanish zarzuela and its twin Austrian sister, operetta, dances, counter-dances and operas.

Middle classes creole landowners and Europeans of lower category, like foremen, and workers, were able to celebrate at more popular parties known as "guateques".

"Guateques" were a little higher in the social ranks than "bembes", the African slaves gatherings to perform their percussion full music, although gradually both ended with many similarities.

And at the mixed meetings, it was natural that a blended music was performed. The "guateques" were the cradle for the "punto guajiro", the genuine folklore music.

"Guateques" were maybe the first place for this music, deeply rooted in Spain, lost the battle to Cuban and African combined forces. A new type of music was born.

A "guajiro" ensemble was composed, in the early times, by harmonic instruments from Spain and their derivations and African percussive instruments.

Strings, including guitars, lutes, tiple and tres (the last one a fully Cuban instrument) were key. The guitar was the star with its three pairs of strings, one of them tuned simultaneously in fa minor.

But tres had its role, together with lute. Francisco Repilado, the late Buena Vista Social Club star "Compay Segundo", developed an "armonico" from tres and used it widely in sones, the troubadour style for the Caribbean island.

The "punto guajiro" orchestra gives a special place to "claves", the universal instrument created in Cuba and consisting of two sticks with round corners in hard wood.

Both crash and make a singular sound. "Claves" is aimed to keep the compass, imposinga rhythmic tyranny over the other members of the team. They are forced to follow the "claves".

Another member of the almost hand-made instruments in the "punto guajiro" music is guiro (a.k.a. guallo), a minor percussive instrument of African origin.

It's made from an emptied and dried güira (the fruit of a Cuban tree, and in its front side there are slots producing a very doughy sound when scratched with a thin rod.

Güiro is an accompanying instrument and a close relative to the more famous worldwide: "maracas".

Savvy Argeliers Leon noted two kinds of "punto guajiro". One is the free punto (a.k.a. Pinar punto) and fixed punto, originated in the central provinces, an area covering Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila and Camagüey provinces.

Accordingly with its name the free punto has a more fluent and flexible music and its air is slower, as instruments are slightly scratched because they are following the singer and notes are scarce.

The fixed punto lets the improviser to keep and equal air and exact measure, according to experts, and guitars and lute keep on working and clave doesn't stop playing.

This is the reason for this kind of punto to be also known "as punto clave". Some other variants are the so-called punto espirituano or the punto matancero.

A variant to the fixed punto is the "punto cruzado", in which the singer follows the accompaniment rhythmically. Another very popular, but not so easy to tame is "seguidilla" or several decimas with no interruption.

The decimal is the lyric style to sing "punto guajiro" in quartets, so singers are called "decimistas or repentistas". The texts describe daily life in a sort of social chronicle.

They are often dedicated to the beauty of the Cuban countryside and the Cuban women. But the top for "punto guajiro" are the controversies.

This is the confrontation of two or more poets to see who can produce the best rhymed decimas and often starting from the final verses of the rival.

These controversies are held with each other having their own audience and fans, perfectly distinguished with a neckerchief, most of the times red for one group and blue for the other.

One special kind of controversy is the "pie forzado" in which a poet, after finishing his quartet, left an idea for the other ended in vowel or consonant and the later must follow it without changing ideas or rhymes.

Cuba has produced many famous improvisers but in the last half century two couples excelled. One includes two youngsters (now middle-aged): Omar y Jesus.

But, the decimistas everybody remember when talking about controversies are Justo Vega and his eternal foe in arts, but good friend in life, Adolfo Alfonso.

The two departed only when Vega died, several years ago. Alfonso, although a pensioner, is still coming to "Palmas y Cañas", the oldest program on Cuban TV, to please fans with his poems.

"Punto guajiro", like William Shakespeare's Montescos and Capuletos legend, keeps popularity along because it is a combination of love-hate proposals.


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