Joseíto Fernández

Music, Cuba

Joseíto Fernández Díaz (1908-1979). Composer and performer who popularized the internationally famous "Guajira guantanamera".

José Fernández Díaz was born in the neighborhood of Los Sitios, in Havana, on September 5, 1908. At only twelve years of age he already sang in serenades with his friends. He began his artistic career in the trio he formed with brothers Gerardo and Juan Llorente. His origins being very humble, he also earned a living working as a shoemaker. In the 1920s, he was part of several son sextets (Los Dioses del Amor, Juventud Habanera, Boloña, Jiguaní and Amate). By the end of the following decade he sang with danzón bands (Raimundo Pía, Antonio María Bustamante, Los caciques, and the band of Alejandro Riveiro, which later changed its name to The Joseíto Fernández Orchestra). In that decade he began to make appearances on the radio, first on Radio Lavín, and later in CMQ’s program El Suceso del Día. He became permanently settled in that medium thanks to the Guajira guantanamera, which livened up radio shows from 1928 on, when a program featuring the Alejandro Riveiro orchestra at the CMCO station used it as a theme. In its final version, Joseíto Fernández and a female performer —initially La Calandria and later Coralia Fernández— would sing, to the tune of the Guajira guantanamera, ten-line stanzas which commented on an incident, usually tragic or violent, which had taken place recently. The show had premiered on Radio Lavín in the late 1930s. It debuted on CMQ in 1941, and it remained on the air for fourteen years with an excellent rating. In 1940, Joseíto Fernández recorded Guajira guantanamera with his danzón orchestra for the RCA Victor label. According to eminent Cuban music researcher Cristóbal Díaz Ayala, the first Guajira guantanamera recording was the one entitled A mi madre. The tune was very popular in that decade, and it began to be known as La Guantanamera for short. After an intro with the melody and the simple couplet “Guantanamera / guajira guantanamera”, Joseíto Fernández would sing, without interruption, three Espinel ten-line stanzas, which generally narrated the day’s event and, after a brief pause, he would express philosophical and ethical insights on the incident, which worked as a moral of sorts. Joseíto Fernández’s La Guantanamera is not actually a guajira —a musical genre created by maestro Jorge Anckermann, which has a 6/8 time—, but a guajira-son, a genre fashioned by composer Ignacio Piñeiro. From June 8, 1963, La Guantanamera gained significant international relevance, after it was performed by American folk singer Pete Seeger, with the insertion of some of José Martí’s Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), at a concert in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The idea of singing the tune with Martí’s verses belonged to composer Julián Orbón. His disciple, Héctor Angulo, who studied in the United States in early 1960, made it popular there. Afterward, a trio of American singers (Peter, Paul & Mary) made the first commercial recording of La Guantanamera, which soon became an international success. Since then, many Cuban singers and ensembles, and others abroad, have included updates of this piece in their repertoires. Joseíto Fernández’s orchestra had a brass band format. In the 1940 recordings, Alberto Beque is credited as its conductor. The recordings that the band made in that year had a song performed by Joseíto Fernández on one side, and an instrumental danzón performed by the orchestra on the other. To this series belong the “guajiras guantanameras” Guardabarreras, Mi biografía and A la mujer cubana. The singer was already widely known back then as “El Rey de la Melodía” (“The Melody King”). In 1945 and 1946 he made other recordings, in which stood out the solos of his pianist, Pepecito Reyes. In 1998 the Cubanacán label (Musicalia Foundation, San Juan, Puerto Rico) edited some of these early recordings by Joseíto Fernández and his orchestra in digital form: El maquiavelo, A la Amistad, El parrandero, El canto de mi sinsonte —with flutist José Antonio Fajardo— and De mi jardín. In 1952, Joseíto Fernández put out several singles for the Cuban label Puchito, with his pieces Canta el piano, Mi madre y mi tierra, Así pienso and La fea. In 1955 he recorded two of his numbers with the Cosmopolita orchestra (Pronto te casarás and Amor de madre), and the next year he made two other recordings with the same ensemble (Dura experiencia —with the music of the guantanamera— and Triste nota). His composition Elige tú, que canto yo was made popular by Benny Moré and his Banda Gigante in the late 1950s. In October 1956 he made recordings for the RCA Victor label with the Aragón orchestra, which was then at the apex of its popularity. In 1973 he recorded an LP album for the Egrem label with Rigoberto Moya and his band, which, aside from the unavoidable Guajira guantanamera —with José Martí’s Versos Sencillos and some by himself— also includes boleros (Para que vuelvas by Candito Ruíz, No me conviene by Antonio López), two guaguancós of his own authorship (De tumbao, Son candela), and two guajiras-son (A mi chocita, Tu tierra y tu libertad). Joseíto Fernández performed for years in TV shows such as Palmas y Cañas and San Nicolás del Peladero, until he retired on account of his health. He passed away in Havana on October 11, 1979.

The last ten-line stanza he wrote was:

Siempre sencillo, decente atento con todo el mundo y aún con dolor profundo siempre he sido complaciente. No he tenido un gesto hiriente ni con un niño siquiera, porque siempre en mi carrera he pensado como humano que el que es cruel y tirano es preferible que muera.

(Always simple, straight I stand Always keeping it humane Even in the deepest pain I have always lent a hand. Never gave a reprimand Never made a hurtful sound For through all my years around I have always had the feeling That the cruel and unforgiving Are best six feet underground.)