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Changüí: The Sound Of Guantánamo, A Super Deluxe Boxed Set For Super Deluxe Music

Mark Smotroff finds existential joy from a new music he’s never heard before…

Imagine you are a writer and want to do a story about the music of a region in a foreign country that is so under-documented that essentially no recordings exist. So, you being a journalist, decide to embark on an investigative journey which becomes a life’s work which takes years out of your life to see the project to fruition.  And, before you know it you are transformed into a full fledged field musicologist this side of the legendary folk music ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, capturing this rare music that only exists out in these rural communities.

Such is the case in a fantastic new three-CD box set produced by Gianluca Tramontana, host of Sitting With Gianluca – From Country-Bluegrass-Blues to CBGBs (which airs on London radio station ResonanceFM 104.4, Radio Free Brooklyn and probably other places)

Called Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo, the collection documents fascinating organic party music from the furthest edge of Cuba’s Guantánamo province. It effectively traces a missing link, a precursor which evolved over time into the sounds of “son” as documented on the acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club series of recordings and film.

Revolving around the three- or six-string Tres (a sort of guitar, which looks like a stripped down 12-string, a Marimbula (a kind of finger-plucked resonating bass instrument), a Güiro, Bongos and Maracas, the music on Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo has a very distinct form to it. Yet, at the same time it is loose and free flowing, at times reminiscent of free jazz and even some avant garde rock musics.  

Call-and-response vocals with easy to learn earworm hooks are always featured so that the Changüi can be easily sung by anyone as well as danced to (remember this is party music!).  And here’s where it gets fascinating: despite the simple instrumentation, the rhythmic textures are distinctive and alluring, living in a sonic space somewhere between African musics (think the polyrhythms of King Sunny Ade) and more outside modern rhythmic twists this side of Captain Beefheart. 

I was so taken with the warm sound on this set that I reached out to the PR folks and asked about how it was made. 

Special kudos accordingly must of course go out to set producer Gianluca Tramontana who spent two years traveling throughout Guantánamo province armed with stealthy Zoom H5 digital recorder, a popular handheld recording device with high-quality microphones built into it. This enabled him to capture recordings of a multitude of performers in their natural environment — in the streets, backyards and  homes — without being intrusive. In some instances he used a handheld shotgun Rode NTG-2 to capture the low end sounds of the Marimbula, resulting in 3-channel recordings. 

Part of the secret sauce contributing to the appealing sound of this set has to do with how it was post-produced: that is, what Grammy-winning mixing engineer Steve Rosenthal did after they got back home with all these recordings. In this instance, Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo effectively turned into a hybrid digital and analog production as they ran the music through a vintage Neve 8026 analog console at Virtue and Vice Studios in Brooklyn. There they employed the full range of Neve Equalization and Neve 2254 Compressors to create the final Stereo mix at 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution. This way they reaped the musically nourishing warmth from the legendary electronics in the Neve mixing console from the pristine digital field recordings (I know a bit about this concept as my old band’s last album was crafted in a somewhat similar hybrid manner). Grammy-winning mastering engineer Michael Graves also worked his magic on the final recordings to ensure consistency across tracks and to help further correct anomalies inherent in the original recordings (wind, mic-bumps, volume/balance, etc.). 

The result is a fine set of compact discs that sound remarkably rich and inviting, all recorded on the wilds of Cuba’s Guantánamo province.

And inviting is how you want this music to be felt — again, remember, Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo is party music!  

Changüi music has its own structures and even though most of it revolves around a 4/4 time signature there is nothing standard about the sound.  You’ll find yourself locking onto many of the interlocking counter-rhythms which weave snake-like around the core groove.

There are hooks-a-plenty across the three CDs of music you’ve likely never heard before. 

While you’ll likely be able to hear this music streaming, you really owe it to yourself to get the box set as it is a beautiful production complete with a knocked out, gorgeous 120-page hardcover book documenting the producer’s journey and the musicians he met and recorded.  It is not that expensive at less than $60 so it is in your best interest to get the whole package which is chock-full of absolutely breathtaking photography of these artists in the countryside.

The production values employed by Grammy-winning designer Barb Bersche are extremely high. For example when you pick up the book — which has a fantastic photo of it which looks like the side of a corrugated steel industrial building graffiti’d with a guitar and signatures — you’ll notice that the actual physical book cover is corrugated itself! The box itself is made with beautiful burlap-like cloth and the outer tiling design which wraps the package sides are made of fabric. This kind of attention to detail elevates Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo to a super deluxe status. 

The book is well annotated, documenting the history of this music’s evolution as the music of workers and rebels. The book — which I am still reading — explains how the sound evolved over decades. It also presents parallels to the path which American blues took becoming the popular music we know it as today. It is at that crossroads where you realize that Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo is essential listening.

As I’ve been listening, I find myself connecting dots to no less than (again) Captain Beefheart and some of John Coltrane’s more freeform directions (think Ascension). So again, while this music has a core of standard time signatures, the interlocking rhythms on Changüi: The Sound Of Guantánamo will inevitably send you on a journey that may well have you dancing to the beat of your own drummer.

And at the end of the day isn’t dancing to the beat of your own drummer what life is all about?

How wonderful to pull existential joy out of an archival set of music made thousands of miles away by creative artists unencumbered by modern society. We all should be grateful to producer Gianluca Tramontana for his loving dedication to delivering this grand music to the rest of the world.  You should listen… check out the official trailer and some music samples below…  So much joy in this music….

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