Un poquito de flamencology 10 - Guajiras
In my article ‘Tangos o Cantes del Piyayo’, I briefly mentioned ‘cantes de ida y vuelta’ (songs of roundtrip) that have been influenced by Latin American music and integrated in flamenco. When thinking of such ‘cantes de ida y vuelta’, the first palo most of us would think of is Guajiras. It is such a primal example of the category.
In Guajiras, it is clear to see Cuban influences not only in its tropical and mellow sounds but also in the popular letras that often have phrases such as: contigo me caso indiana… / hermosísima cubana… / tengo una casa en la Habana… etc.
In fact, Guajiras originated from Punto (Guajiro) Cubano, a genre of Cuban music. Guajiro or guajira in Cuba means farmers, and the lyrics often deal with rural lives or love stories among local people. This music genre was brought to Spain in the 18th century, and it was used in Zarzuela before being adopted in flamenco in the 19th century.
Pepe Marchena, one of the pioneers of cantes de ida y vuelta, left recordings of both Punto Cubano and flamenconised Guajiras in the way that we could briefly trace the history:
Una Noche Que la Luna (Punto Cubano) - Pepe Marchena
Contigo Me Caso Indiana (Guajiras) - Pepe Marchena
The breeze of Havana
Flamenco reformed Guajiras in the compás of 12 like Soleá and Cantiñas. With this format, it has become a popular palo to be danced. In these videos, we can see how Guajiras would have been performed a few decades ago, with attempts to recreate the atmosphere of Havana:
Guajiras - Loli Flores (with a palm leaf fan)
Guajiras - Lucero Tena (with castanets and bata de cola)
Guajiras - José Joaquín (with newspapers - acting like a local man enjoying his life in Havana)
Rather than keeping the same tempo all the way through, Guajiras in baile flamenco could start slow and mellow, then speed up with footwork, slow down again, like the tide of ocean waves. The nostalgic and dreamy soundscape of Guajiras could deliver an imaginary ocean breeze too, making us feel a bit laid-back, as if we are enjoying our lives along the beach or streets in Havana.
As a cante solo, it could be sung in a somewhat ‘libre’ (free rhythm) style, rather than keeping the steady tempo of 12, so that it could entail a poetic and liberal air:
Guajiras - Juanito Valderrama
To me, Guajiras, in either cante solo or baile, would be more profound if it has a somewhat wavy, winding feel, rather than machinery, repetitive rhythms of 12 all the way through.
Ranges of interpretation
Although many male dancers interpreted Guajiras in the early years, it has recently been associated with dancing with an abanico (fan), which is usually the privilege for female dancers. It is also possible to use a manton (shawl), castanets or/and bata de cola (a tail skirt), but in any case, dance interpretations of Guajiras nowadays are usually rather feminine, as this palo has a certain lightness, elegance and cheekiness. An abanico is the most suitable tool to express these kinds of flirtatious nature:
Guajiras - Mayte Martín & Belén Maya
The difficulty of interpreting Guajiras in dance is that it could end up looking similar to other palos like Caracoles and Alegrías. Caracoles is another palo that is often danced with an abanico, and if the music of Guajiras is played in steady tempo without its signature wavy, winding feel, the dance interpretation can be interchangeable, without expressing the uniqueness of Guajiras or vice versa.
Meanwhile, some female dancers nowadays avoid using an abanico and dance Guajiras without a prop, as if trying to be non-traditional. The risk is that it could make the choreography uncharacteristic, looking similar to any other palos of the compás of 12, such as Alegrías. The same thing applies when its elegant musicality is compensated by loud footwork and a masculine style, whether being danced by male or female dancers.
Although there is nothing absolutely right or wrong regarding how to dance Guajiras or other palos of flamenco, we should have a certain preference and principles. Despite having it in my own repertoire, I still do not have a clear answer to how I would like to dance Guajiras.
Although it is often categorised as a cante chico, a light song, Guajiras is not an easy palo to interpret. It has a certain depth, horizon and expansion, and could make us reflect on how we feel, just like the ocean. To decide how to surf or swim or dive into it, Guajiras challenges our sense of artistry.
Guajiras - Israel Fernández & Rubén Lara
Un poquito de flamencology 7 - Tangos o Cantes del Piyayo