A Little Slice of Cuba

Welcome to Rancho Don Goyo, where the pork is fresh, the beer is cold, and the music is pure, rural Cuban

Mobel is the second son Goyo has had to bury. His eldest son Silvio died in an accident while performing military exercises one weekend in Matanzas. He was sixteen years old.

Goyo says he and Mobel were inseparable. "He liked everything I liked," Goyo notes. Including the countryside. Goyo bought the ranch with his son in mind, so the boy would always have a place to live and work. When Mobel was alive there were horses, cows, and goats on the land, as well as chickens and pigs. The two did the chores together each day. After his son died, Goyo sold the cows and horses because they were too much for him to care for alone. Mobel is buried in a cemetery down the road, which Goyo visits every day.

Goyo goes into his small bedroom, decorated with a framed poster of a Ferrari and furnished with a bed with a flowered spread and a small sofa. It is the only room on the property with air conditioning -- a matter of pride to Don Goyo -- and he keeps it cool. He pours a glass of wine from a bottle in a small refrigerator, and points to a photo of Mobel, a robust man with a moustache.

"Happiness doesn't exist," he murmurs, wiping his eyes. He claps his hands on his knees and sighs. "The only thing left for me is to try and make everyone else happy."

Two musicians sit on chairs at the back of the dance floor. One holds a guitar, the other an elegant oval-shaped, twelve-stringed lute, this one decorated with a large decal of the Cuban flag. A man in a bowler hat and rugby shirt stands behind them, scratching a guiro with a stick to produce a rhythmic, raspy sound. A curvaceous middle-age blonde with a beehive hairdo and high heels acts as mistress of ceremonies. Wielding a clipboard, she calls out the names of the regular performers, asking them to come onstage and sing a greeting to the audience.

The vocalists perform in a talk-sing style that may remind new listeners of flamenco, calypso, rap, or spoken-word poetry. As in a poetry slam, the guajiros compete for audience applause, improvising in informal contests called controversias. The improvisers use language as flowery and antiquated as bards at a Renaissance fair, but their subject matter tends to come from current experience.

"The problems in Cuba, nostalgia, longing for our homeland, love, life, freedom -- there are a lot of things we sing about," says Pablo Leon, the acknowledged leader of the aficionados.

"Por ser parte del paisaje dominical vine y traje a la familia," one man intones in a tuneless nasal twang, drawing applause from the crowd. "En el rancho de Don Goyo se pasa muy bien la vida." ("To be part of the Sunday landscape I came here and I brought my family. A great time is had at Don Goyo's ranch.")

The blonde steps up with her clipboard. "Don't forget," she announces, "in the kitchen we have pork, yuca, tamales, tostones, and beer." She calls the next contestant on her list, but he doesn't appear. He can be seen riding through the parking lot on a horse. "Oh well. Next!"

A thin older man who looks like an undertaker in a drab gray suit takes the stage.

"De Hialeah vino Trujillo aqui, no porque llevo traje pero por el sentimiento que tengo aqui ("Trujillo came here from Hialeah, not because I have a suit on but because of the feeling I have here") he sings, thumping his chest. This draws cheers from the crowd.

The performers -- about half a dozen are present today -- finish their greetings and the controversias begin. They come onstage two at a time and take turns ad-libbing rhymes about a given theme. These are silly or serious, ranging from metaphorical descriptions of the ancient sound of the Arabic lute to the beauty of the country landscape to the glories of Don Goyo's cooking. A journalist's presence in the audience sparks a 40-minute jag about newspapers and fame.

The improvised lyrics of punto guajiro take the form of the decima, a ten-line Spanish poem once employed by wandering troubadours to give news of battles, royal decrees, and general gossip. The name punto (point) comes from the position of the hand on the guitar fret when playing the spare chords of the accompanying music's three-by-eight beat rhythm. The punto style became popular in Cuba in the Seventeenth Century, when it was played at weekend parties of Spanish agriculturists who wanted to remember their homeland, even if they were of a generation born on the island.

"They brought this music from Spain to the New World and where did they do it best? In Cuba," says Manuel Soriano, one of the singers. "The most perfect decima is in Cuba. They may do it in Puerto Rico or Santo Domingo, but it's not even comparable."

The Cuban version of the Spanish song form is called punto guajiro, or simply punto Cubano. Different styles developed in disparate regions of the island: tranquil in Matanzas, more energetic in Las Villas, sleepier in CamagYey, and most lyrical in the eastern part of the island.

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