How I teach – One song, so many lessons

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By Heather Martin

A Cuban anthem opens up a world of new ideas and concepts

Take one song, three verses, 12 lines (not counting repetitions and chorus). Not only are you teaching Spanish vocabulary, grammar, syntax and pronunciation but you are also exploring history and geography, literary genre and the poetic function, social and political awareness, citizenship and morality, creative writing and translation. I give you Guantanamera.

The three most famous verses of Guantanamera, the definitive patriotic song of Cuba, are surprisingly distinct in tone. The first is autobiographical, setting the scene and introducing the protagonist; from here, a lesson on narrative technique and another on world geography could ensue.

The protagonist sings, “I am an honest man” (character description, the verb “to be”, adjectival agreement) “from where the palm tree grows” (Central America and the Caribbean). The chorus – “Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera” – encapsulates darkness and light: it is a simple hymn to a woman. And these words are an opportunity for lessons on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, communism, the Bay of Pigs and today’s post-9/11 world.

The next verse is passionately poetic. “My song is bright green” (metaphor, colour symbolism), sings the protagonist, and “fiery red” (pain, love, death). “My song is a wounded deer seeking refuge in the mountain” (nature, beauty, vulnerability). The poetic words help the protagonist to express something intensely personal that eludes everyday language.

Although the second verse looks inward, the third zooms out to embrace a wide-angle view of the planet and all humankind. “I want to throw in my lot with the poor of the Earth,” the protagonist proclaims. This unequivocal statement of solidarity (solidaridad, from the group of feminine nouns that end in the suffix “dad”) competes in emotive power with ballads such as Stand By Me, the more personal You’ve Got a Friend or Bridge Over Troubled Water.

For most of my pupils, this is all new. These words – and the discussions that follow – can help to raise social, political and global awareness.

Song of change

I usually throw in some extra verses, favouring one about being “a good man” and another, equally motivational, in which the protagonist says “the leopard is rich because he has a coat, but I am richer because I have a good friend”. But what are the origins of this song?

The lyrics, which take many forms in Cuba, are based on a poem by José Martí, 19th-century hero of Cuban independence; the melody is often attributed to 20th-century radio presenter Joseíto Fernández, who popularised the tune by singing the news to it at the conclusion of his show, in order to comment on the events of the day.

In this way, the melody of Guantanamera soon became a popular vehicle for social commentary in Cuba and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world.

Pupils are fascinated by this surprising form of early social media. I ask them to listen harder to chants at football matches around the UK – for example, “One Wayne Rooney, there’s only one Wayne Rooney”. The melody is lifted directly from Guantanamera.

And so, the microcosm that is Guantanamera has journeyed across the Atlantic to Manchester and beyond, and it can be used to illuminate almost any subject. Do you teach maths, computing, science? Why not ask your class to compose their own binary code verses and get singing that tune.

Dr Heather Martin is head of languages and head of enrichment at St Faith’s Independent Prep School in Cambridge


Nación y Emigración