14ymedio, Yunior García Aguilera, Madrid, 1 February 2024 — The history of Cuba is sung. When Perucho Figueredo composed our own Marseillaise, he did so by disguising it as a religious march. He even played it in the main church during the Corpus Christi celebrations in the presence of the Spanish officials. They, of course, were suspicious. That melody was much too powerful and passionate to be a simple hymn dedicated to the Lord. They summoned the orchestra director and Perucho himself. Their interrogators knew nothing about music so the creator of our national anthem got away with it. When, not long after, he included the lyrics while mounted on his horse, there was no longer any doubt that La Bayamesa was a battle march.
Several years ago, Anima Studios in Holguín commissioned me to write a script for an animated cartoon about the history of our anthem. What I wrote about was the present, not the past. The words were the same dialogue we used when silently conspiring against the dictatorship. They fell for it. I think they even premiered it on one epsisode of State TV’s Roundtable program. I don’t know, however, if Cuban television will continue broadcasting material about the national anthem in which my name is at the top of the final credits.
I don’t know, however, if Cuban television will continue broadcasting material about the national anthem in which my name is at the top of the final credits.
Getting back to the topic at hand, there were several musical battles during the Republican era but perhaps the most famous of all was the one over La Chambelona. The head of government at the time was our third president, Matanza’s Aurelio Mario Gabriel Francisco García Menocal y Deop.
The Foreman, as he was nicknamed, was born in Jagüey Grande in 1866. His family was exiled during the Ten Years’ War and young Mario ended up graduating with a civil engineering degree from an American university. He became part of an ambitious project that is still being discussed today: the Nicaragua canal.
Upon returning to Cuba, he quickly joined José Martí’s war efforts, rising to the rank of major general. He was one of nine Cuban generals who were invited to attend the handover ceremony after the war ended. He was also chief of the police in Havana during the first North American occupation as well as inspector general of public works. He stepped away from politics for a time, dedicating himself to managing the Chaparra power plant in Las Tunas. But the conservatives needed a leader like him.
Running for president as a conservative candidate, he lost to José Miguel Gómez but won against Alfredo Zayas in 1912. World War I turned out to be a boon for Cuba because it raised the price of sugar. During his time time in office, the country adopted a national currency. The Cuban peso was pegged to the U.S. dollar and backed by the silver standard. If Menocal knew the peso’s worth today, he would turn over in his grave.
When the Foreman tried to get reelected, it launched the Chambelona revolution. The catchy tune, with its conga rhythm, was inspired by an old Spanish song. There are those who say that it originated in Chambas, hence the name, but that has not been proven. It is also not clear who the original author was so there were no disputes over copyright issues. La Chambelona became a liberal anthem. José Miguel Gómez himself halted his march westward to dance to La Chambelona in the town of Majagua.
Perhaps all that dancing is what caused them to arrest him and his son, and take them to Havana. Menocal’s advisors wanted to humiliate him even more
Perhaps all that dancing is what caused them to arrest him and his son, and take them to Havana. Menocal’s advisors wanted to humiliate him even more. They wanted him to walk him handcuffed along the Paseo del Prado and the Malecón to the paddy wagon. But José Miguel Gómez, the Cuban president whom official historians want to strip of all virtue, said the following: “You forget that the man who is imprisoned is a general of independence. You forget that the man who is imprisoned is an insurgent who covered himself in glory during combat. You forget that that man who is imprisoned was my friend and my comrade-in-arms.”
Cubans have had other anthems in more recent times, from Nuestro Día Ya Viene Llegando (Our Day Is Now Coming) by Willy Chirino to Patria y Vida (Homeland and Life), which was sung in the streets during the mass protests on 11 July 2021. The regime has tried to emulate these songs with some musical clunkers composed by Raúl Torres, whom the muses have not only abandoned but who has gained hundreds of thousands of “dislikes” on YouTube.
Cuba’s current president Miguel Díaz-Canel, who isn’t a poet and who cannot pull verses out of thin air, might hum a few bars of La Chambelona while in the shower. Perhaps he even sings a few lines out of tune to himself: “I am not to blame and I don’t blame here.”
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