Celia Cruz, c1950
Celia Cruz, c1950 © Tom Copi/Getty Images

This week’s song has undergone quite a journey: from a 19th-century Cuban national hero to a 21st-century recycling campaign in Sweden, via the peace movement of the 1960s, swinging Latino pop, and the football terraces of England.

It’s widely accepted that the tune to “Guantanamera” was written in the 1920s by Joseíto Fernández, a popular Cuban radio host, who would perform the song on his show and make up new verses each week based on current events. His chorus sings the praises of a guajira (peasant woman) from Guantánamo (the Guantanamera of the title).

Some years later the Cuban-born composer Julián Orbón adapted the song using as verses a poem by José Martí, a Cuban poet, essayist and revolutionary philosopher born in 1853. A book of Martí’s poems, Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), was published posthumously (he died fighting the Spanish in 1895); among them was a poem about a “sincere man” from “where the palm trees grow” (Yo soy un hombre sincero/ De donde crece la palma); the words were a perfect fit.

Martí’s lyric expresses sympathy with the world’s poor, and it was this that attracted American folk singer and campaigner Pete Seeger, who picked up the song in the early 1960s and transformed it into an international peace anthem. There is nothing in the song that mentions “peace” but at a time when the Cuban missile crisis was casting a shadow over the world, here was a Cuban-born song with a memorable chorus that audiences could sing along to and express their international solidarity (little can they have imagined what would later take place in Guantánamo Bay). Other folkies of the period recorded versions: Joan Baez (exquisitely), Julie Felix and, most successfully, the Sandpipers, whose combination of Hispanic harmonies and spoken words touched a chord worldwide in 1966.

The Sandpipers' 'Guantanamera' vinyl record

It’s worth mentioning, too, that guajira, as well as being a peasant, also refers to the form of rural Cuban popular music in which the song is written, and one that reached the ears of a young Bob Marley: in the early 1960s his Wailers recorded a hybrid tune called “Guajira Ska”, whose rhythms reflected the proximity of Jamaica to Cuba.

In the meantime, Spanish-speaking artists latched on to the song: Cuban-born singer Celia Cruz gave it an up-tempo salsa treatment in the 1960s (there’s terrific footage on YouTube of Cruz shaking and strutting in a shimmering dress), while José Feliciano embellished it with his characteristically baroque fingerpicking flourishes.

Peter Seeger's 'Guantanamera' vinyl record

From there, it made its way to the football grounds of England. No one knows quite when fans decided that “Guantanamera” was appropriate for terrace songs but, in the past couple of decades, it has joined “Blue Moon” and Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” as a vehicle for expressions of support or disdain. Most often, the chorus of “Guantanamera” becomes (aimed at opposition fans): “You only sing when you’re winning”, or in praise of a particular player, “There’s only one . . . [insert name of player here]”.

In its latest incarnation, a version of the song has become the anthem of the Swedish government’s campaign to get citizens to recycle more waste. The slogan is “Pantamera” (“recycle more”), which fits nicely (well, almost) with the chorus of “Guantanamera”; Swedes have since been creating their own versions of the song and putting them on YouTube and on the official Pantamera website. Which is entirely appropriate, given how many times the song has been recycled.

Listen to a podcast with audio clips of ‘Guantanamera’

Photograph: Tom Copi/Getty Images

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