Although Cuba will not be taking part in the World Cup finals this year (they haven’t qualified since 1938), a certain Cuban tune is guaranteed to make an appearance. “Guantanamera”, beloved of football fans around the world, was written in the late 1920s by Joseíto Fernández, a musician from Havana nicknamed “the king of the melody”.
Fernández was born in 1908 and worked from early childhood, selling newspapers, cobbling shoes and singing in public. He is said to have composed “Guantanamera” in honour of a woman from Guantánamo, a city and province in southeast Cuba (not to be mistaken for the notorious Guantanamo Bay, the American naval base nearby). The “Guantanamera” song consisted of improvised sections formed by ten-syllable lines, followed by the chorus “Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera”.
“Guajira” means “female peasant” and is also the name of a popular genre of Cuban music whose rhythm shifts from 6/8 to 3/4 time and whose lyrics often touch on rural themes. “Guantanamera” means “from Guantánamo”. Since the song is partly in the guajira genre and the lyrics of the stanzas were improvised, the words in the chorus could mean either “a female peasant from Guantánamo” or “a piece of guajira music from Guantánamo”.
When Fernández first performed the song on the radio in 1935, it was an instant success. In the 1940s and 1950s, the song became even more popular thanks to Fernández’s appearances on a programme called “The event of the day”, broadcast on Cuba’s main radio network. Fernández would improvise lyrics about the news, following them with the catchy chorus. Among his favourite topics was murder. “Joseíto is going to sing you ‘Guantanamera’” became a way to warn people to behave themselves or risk appearing on the news.
In the late 1940s, Julián Orbón (1925-1991), a Spanish-Cuban composer, experimented with the song, keeping the chorus but creating a fixed, shorter melody and incorporating a selection of verses from “Versos Sencillos” (Simple Verses) a book of poems by José Martí (1853-1895), a hero of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain:
Yo soy un hombre sincero (I am a truthful man)
De donde crece la palma (From where the palm tree grows)
Y antes de morir yo quiero (And before dying I want)
Echar mis versos del alma (To let out the verses of my soul)
Guantanamera / Guajira guantanamera / Guantanamera / Guajira guantanamera etc.
Orbón’s adaptation has become the best known “Guantanamera” in Cuba and abroad. Hundreds of other covers have been recorded in different styles and languages. Versions by the American musicians Pete Seeger (1963) and The Sandpipers (1966) catapulted the song to international fame. In 1966, the year England won the football World Cup, The Sandpipers’ “Guantanamera” reached the top ten in America, Britain and Canada. This recording was the most likely vehicle by which the song entered football stadiums and became, in its multiple variations created by fans, one of the most popular football tunes.
Dave Allen, a fan of Portsmouth, an English football club, remembers early renderings of “There’s only one”: “In the autumn of 1966, just after England won the World Cup, everyone was especially excited about football...My team had a full-back called Fred Smith. I loved the idea of singing “There’s only one Fred Smith”, even though he was unremarkable. Plus, in the 1960s the name Fred Smith would have been common in England. We sang to our full-back Fred with praise or elation, but also with a sense of irony.”
Ian Inglis, a supporter of Stoke City, came across the “Guantanamera” tune at Elland Road, the home of Leeds United, in the late 1960s. “I heard the Leeds fans singing what at first sounded like a straightforward rendition of The Sandpipers’ hit song “Guantanamera”. It struck me as a strange choice for a football crowd to sing. “Only after carefully listening to the repeated chorus did I realise that the original lyrics had been changed to ‘One Terry Yorath, there’s only one Terry Yorath’ [a Leeds player]. I remember being very impressed by its originality…it made a pleasant change from the usual chant of ‘You’re gonna get your f****** head kicked in!’ that greeted visiting fans at many grounds.”
“Football fans are always adopting and adapting hit records, but only a few of them enter the canon of great chanting songs that are used by fans of all teams and continue to be sung for years”, says Richard Osborne, a senior lecturer in popular music at Middlesex University. “Songs must have a great tune that has captured the public’s imagination and that they lend themselves to public singing. What is also important is how songs lend themselves to lyrics. The ones that achieve traction tend to be adaptable to short phrases.”
And, of course, adaptable to different languages. In Britain, “There’s only one...” and “You only sing when you’re winning” can be heard at most football matches. In Italy, fans sing to their rivals, “Solo rubare, sapete solo rubare” (Know how to steal, you only know how to steal). After an opposition player misses a sitter, Finnish fans chant “Onneton veto, olipa onneton veto” (Lousy shot, that was a lousy shot). Australians insult the opposition by claiming “You’re just a slum on the freeway”. While Spanish fans can often be heard singing “Qué malo eres, árbitro que malo eres” (You’re so bad, referee you’re so bad). “Guantanamera” has given us what is perhaps the most versatile, most global football song of all time.