Magazine AM:PM
Playlists Illustration: Alejandro Cuervo. Illustration: Alejandro Cuervo.

Cuban flora from a tiny city nursery

In the country of the siguaraya, the guayacán and the corojo palm, urbanites travel along monotonous green roads, flanked at times by bald hills. Suddenly something pulls our eyes: a gold that we did not know is scattered in the gutter. The yellow elderberry in the midday sun is that needle that scratches the old record of the landscape. Arriving in the city, we look for its sparkle through treeless streets and posh gardens, but it does not appear. Then the voice of Benny arrives from some loudspeaker, and there they are back, evoking the stick “that without permission cannot be knocked down”, all the sticks of the mountain.

Among the islands of the world, Cuba ranks fourth in number of plant species, with more than 7,500, 53% of them endemic! We also have the first place in density of plants per square kilometer. This rich flora, although not very visible in the immediate environment of most Cubans, has its counterpart in our music, just as exuberant, with countless genres, composers, performers. Cuban are many of the woods that we sound. Acana Keys (manilkara valenzuela) and yaiti (Gymnanthes lucida), guiros hanging from its tree (Crescentia cujete), tres and guitars where the cedar (Cedrela odorata) and the majagua (Talipariti elatum).

In the mestizo songbook that we are, just as in the green, there have been fellings, extinctions, monoculture and exotic species that have become invasive. Singing to those trees, herbs and epiphytes relegated by centuries of agriculture, livestock, urbanization and the advance of foreign flora, we also represent ourselves and evoke the country with pride, pain and nostalgia. “That smell of basil and rosemary” that was, according to Dulce María Loynaz, an attribute of a lost Vedado, inadvertently covers up the felling of the mountain preserved for centuries from Havana's voracity, with its own smells and colors. That of which there are still relicts near the Casiguaguas River (Almendares), where the yellow elderberry (tecoma stans), after a long search, the urbanite reappears.

Let's return to this playful or sentimental music where green emerges as a theme or passage in a larger horizon, feeling that we arrived on the Island 7,000 years ago, before all genocide/ecocide, when Latin did not name the guao and Celina's voices , Celia, Fabré, Omara and Pablo were only promises of a long speciation.    

Mata siguaraya / Benny More

When thinking about the encounter between native flora and Cuban music, the first theme that strikes us is Mata siguaraya, by Lino Frías, in the voices of Benny or Oscar de León. Every time we hum it, an interdiction is reinforced —not to cut it down “without permission”— that may be able to stop a logger. I wonder, however, why no siguaraya grows majestically in the Central Park, or in the Plaza de Armas in the historic center, or in Trillo Park; when the name of the city is in the scientific name of the species.

Trichilia havanensis It is a leafy tree of the meliaceae family, brother of the also famous ax head or jubaban (Trichilia hirta). In infusion or poultice it combats rheumatism, skin diseases, arthritis, kidney stones. It gained special sacredness for religions of African origin. In palo monte it is called “abrecamino”, “rompecamino” and “tapacamino”, because it is a mediator between the good that is desired (propitiating it) and the evil that is received (moving it away). No one would doubt that, when Benny declares himself “by permission”, he embodies Seven Rays, Changó and Elegguá, mystical owners of the tree. 

Ceiba ritual / Rita Del Prado

It's hard to hear this song-sentence in 2022, with so many broken projects and scattered friends like seeds in the wind. I recently saw a hundred-year-old ceiba tree cut down in La Timba —a few meters from another completely amputated one—, and I think I understand why the sky doesn't listen to us. In the midst of stridency and desecration, we are left with these verses to elevate them in endless cycles. 

“Ceiba” is the Taíno voice that defines the genre, hence our ceiba pentandra. The epithet alludes to its flower, whose androecium (male organ) has five stamens well separated —as if they were showing off— from the gynoecium (female organ). For our native peoples, the ceiba was the home of the spirits. The Mayans esteemed it as a world tree, since its roots communicated the different levels of the universe. The enslaved African peoples saw in it the presence of Iroko, a sacred tree lost/refound; They protected her when everything else fell apart, even her shadow was respected. Today we only ask, with Rita del Prado, a "civic gesture".

¿Quién ha visto por ahí mi sombrero de yarey? / Original from Manzanillo 

With the threads of inextinguishable grace, Cándido Fabré weaves a story —the search throughout Cuba for a hat thrown to his audience— about the strength of an identity that has as its epitome the aforementioned hat, and with it the guayabera, the stadium of ball, proud speech, Sunday outing. 

They are called "yarey" to several native palms of the genus Copernicia abundant in the plains of central and eastern Cuba, whose leaves are used in handicrafts. baileyana copernicia or female yarey is the best, although the male yarey or weaving yarey is also used, Copernicia curbeloi, named in honor of Maximiliano Curbelo, a wood collector. In this playlist we will not talk about “woods”: no tree chose that cruel destiny. 

La sitiera / Omara Portuondo and the Failde Orchestra

As there are no more paradises than lost paradises, according to Borges, the world-traveler from Pinar del Río Rafael López sings to a family and to a love present because they are buried. From here, one can only trust that, as long as the invitation to the Sitiera continues —“come, come, come”, the choirs repeat—, the Sitiera will overflow with flowers and the goldfinch will chirp in the carob tree.

the shadow of samanea saman It would be impossible if they had not brought it from continental America in the mid-nineteenth century to use its trunk, its pods and its figure. It is so familiar in the city or in the countryside, that no one sees in the "country carob tree" something foreign. Here it has become naturalized: it has a stable population capable of reproducing itself without affecting the native species. the jobo (Spondias mombin) was on this earth forever. It belongs to the anacardiaceae family, like the exotic mango and cashew. Its yellow fruit is bittersweet and very perfumed, adjectives applicable to this guajira in Omara's painful interpretation. 

Manteca de corojo / Afro-Cuban Social Club

Everything in this son slides with "butter" of Gastrococcus crispa, endemic palm that grows in calcareous soils of the country, especially in Camagüey. Distinguishes this species from other similar ones, its trunk, thin at the ends and very thick in the center, surrounded there by rings of long thorns that also cover the leaves. 

The nut of the fruit is edible—it tastes like dried coconut dough—and it fed our starving army in the wars of independence. The substance with which the song promises to smear, smear, “loosen” the woman is extracted from it. The rumberos, according to the lyrics, also use it to treat the leather of the drums; a passage where they shine attests to this. The corojo butter is very liked by the orishas. Together with honey from bees, it appeases Changó's anger.  

No toque el guao / Arsenio Rodríguez ensemble

In society, as usual morality dictates, the male must project a resolute image that neutralizes any grievance in formation. Aware of this, Arsenio proposes the fearsome figure of the guao in this son montuno of fine irony, where he exalts his power without fatiguing adjectives, but making him triumph in a hierarchy that includes other species of warrior lineage: the jagüey, the sabicú and the curamaguey. 

We call “jagüey” the 10 species of native trees of the genus ficus. They usually develop on other trees; its adventitious roots descend until they reach the ground and little by little they strangle the host, for which they symbolize betrayal and ingratitude. The theme seems to refer to Ficus membranacea, owned by Oggun, with whose leaves a bath is prepared that clarifies luck. The sabicú or jigüe (Lysiloma sabicu) is a penitent-looking Fabaceae: its dark bark peels off in strips while the curved branches show the red of the young leaves. According to Lydia Cabrera, spreading the ashes of its wood in the home of a sick person prevents contagion. Another bad guy is the curamagüey (Marsdenia Clausa), vine with a deceptive white flower: “Although the powders are blown [says The mountain], the indicated thing, when one has to be dispatched, is to drink them in the cafe”. 

No stick, however, compares to the guao, the guao-man, the inflator. 

Por culpa del guao / iraquere

Here the "wow" does not impose respect: scratching becomes touching. the sultry crescendo as a coda it would become an anthology of our tendency to take weight away from all tragic reasons. But in the mythical-religious substratum the look is very different, and botany explains it.   

We say "wow" to several bushes, but especially to Comocladia dentata. It abounds in savannahs, coasts, arid and rocky terrain throughout Cuba. The resin it secretes causes burns. His owner is the devil, reports Lydia Cabrera, who declares him king of sympathetic magic (where like attracts like): "There is no more devilish stick on the mountain, or better to kill, disrupt, burst, end everything ”. 

Just as there is guao there is contraguao, plants that alleviate the symptoms that it causes; although finding them in the midst of itching is difficult. Sympathetic magic itself also works: “If the guao bites you, come back immediately with a whip or a stick. Insult him, hit him hard, and then spit him out. If his hand or any member had swollen when touched, and if he feels itchy, it heals immediately after the beating”… And to dance merengue. 

El palo tiene curujey / Arsenio Rodríguez ensemble

In this son montuno of magical breath and reyoyo, a group of animals prepares to represent something. Theater? Rite? Delirium? A short phrase from the choir, strange to the lusciousness of the genre, introduces us to this unusual altarpiece-world, perhaps a code for something else. Note the melodic closeness between the choruses of this theme and that of bruca manigua, another classic Blind Man.   

Curujeyes are native bromeliads (several genera), many endemic, common in our forests, even on power lines. Some consider them parasites, but they are epiphytes: they only require support from another plant to capture the nutrients carried by the air. They have served the maroon, the mambí, the rebel and the simple mortal to quench their thirst, because the rain is retained between their leaves. Perhaps in this way they instil the supernatural: "From a curujey, attached to a jobo, I drink clear water," says Martí in his diary when he goes towards death.

De biajacas y majaguas / Duet Karma

Because of the species it names, this beautiful song by the Karma Duo makes me travel to an Edenic Cuba, a mountain and a river untouched by humans, inhabited by placid and perplexed beings: the biajaca, an endemic fish of fresh and brackish waters, evicted from many rivers for the exotic tilapia; the angelic querequeté, of nervous flight at dusk; the aguají, solitary open water fish, overfished; the always blooming majagua.  

Talipariti elatum  (before Hibiscus elatus) is a luxury that I am grateful to those who sow it profusely, even if they ignore a thousand other treasures. It could be an endemic of ours brought to Jamaica by the indigenous people in pre-Columbian times, although today it is considered native to both islands. There it is so important that it was declared a National Tree. Here it grows on low ground, near swamps and marshy shorelines. In the East it is called “demajagua” and the famous ingenuity was named after it. 

We already know how fragile the Edens and liberations of the past are: “There is more horizon than what you see. / That it cannot be seen is not that it cannot be”, Xóchitl warns these beings accommodated in their exceptionality. Like us.   

Caimitillo y Marañón / Aragon Orchestra

In a loud, verbose tone, the lyrical subject of this bolero-chá accuses whoever could be his ex of cowardice, of not reciprocating out of fear. Why then that vegetable title? The chorus, which begins and ends the theme by lowering the seriousness of the speech, is applied —as if it were derived— to the tasting of very suckable fruits but all more or less astringent: love is like that. 

It is legitimate to think that the rejected lover will take revenge by trying and comparing other "fruits". Our caimitillo (Chrysophyllum oliviforme), sweet but rather ridiculous, will triumph over the exotic mamoncillo (Melicoccus bijugatus) —“foolish food”, says my father—, but it will be shamelessly replaced by the also foreign cashew (Anacardium occidentale), of abundant and perfumed meat. amatory ars in the always elegant style of the Aragón.

Anamú / Mayari Quartet

Fable of a "lambía" goat that ate the "grass that the goat does not chew" and ended up dying of "farfallota" (mumps). I don't know whether to smile or condole. There is an obvious sexism in the goat succumbing to its impulses while the wise goat abstains. Given this, we will say that the theme creates a nice exaggeration with a certain base. 

The Anamu (Petiveria alliacea), a unique species in its genus, attracts with its strong smell of garlic and contaminates the milk of cattle that eat it. It has a reputation for abortifacient —“sacaboy” they call it— and its pungent fruits dig into our clothes and skin. But let's not continue dishonoring it, which is an expectorant herb ideal for inhalations and effective protection behind doors: "seven anamú segments tied with a red ribbon will be worn, especially when there are people persecuted by spirits," he advises. The mountain. Light for the goat, for the goat and for our understanding. 

 La casa de yagua / Celina and Reutilio

At night one surrenders to sleep to recover something of what has been lost: childhood, small country, first love. This musical work, by the Puerto Rican Baltazar Carrero, speaks of not being able to find, not even dreaming, the consolation of form. Only the singing, the counting, perpetuate the fleeting “leloley lelolay”. Song that talks about something and at the same time about nothing: that is its strangeness. Included in this playlist to show how two islands are also linked by their flora. 

Four trees have the landscape that Celina looks for when she sleeps: La jagua (american genipa), native in Puerto Rico and here, medicinal and delicious in juices and jams, condemned to rarity due to our apathy, but a symbol of the city of Cienfuegos. The jigüero, here güira (Crescentia cujete), whose woody epicarp fruit is used to make jícaras; It could have been introduced in both islands by the indigenous people in remote times, since it is only found associated with humans. The Puerto Rican quenepo is our mamoncillo (Melicoccus bijugatus), native to South America but naturalized throughout the Caribbean. The guama (inga laurine), fabaceae naturalized here as guamá de Puerto Rico —we name more than 10 species guamá—, is native there, widely used to shade the coffee with which Cubans and Puerto Ricans wake up. 

 Teje que teje / Eliades Ochoa and the Patria Quartet  

The ateje (Cordia collococca) where the spider of this track weaves that weaves is perhaps our most humble and voluptuous tree, which we do not honor enough. It is a sight to see it loaded with such abundance of red fruits in spring; one imagines how intense the pollination was. Seedlings and seedlings spread out, born from seeds that excrete whatever flies happy. Atavistic, the boys spread their “gomina” on their hair to attract. Neither banana nor apple, when tasting the sweet ateje the thickness of a certain human flow returns to my palate, and I throw my seed.

The son that concerns us does not talk about this. But the dalliance of all those birds, male over female and self-satisfied female, is undoubtedly due to an ateje in fruits at the bottom of the composition.     

Palo yaya / Afro-Cuban Group of Matanzas

Oxandra lanceolata it is a common little tree in the Cuban bush; tall, thin and flexible, from the Annonaceae family, medicinal and used in cooking to enhance flavors. In Santeria it is used for spiritual cleansing, and it is the fundamental stick of the nganga. “There is no mayombero who does not have it. Yaya is female. Take down and get up. It kills and heals everything”; “Yaya means mother. I am his son”, affirm testimonies of The mountain.

It is precisely then that, due to its self-affirming essence, we present this song by Francisco Domínguez in the voice of a woman, Carlota Teresa Polledo Noriega. A singer and dancer with a long career, Polledo is a direct descendant of Carlota Lucumí, a mythical enslaved woman who led the Triunvirato sugar mill uprising in the 19th century. Where a Cuban woman falls at the hands of an abuser, we should plant a yaya.

Con palo de yaya / Pablo Milanes

Song by the legendary guitarist and tresero Octavio Sánchez Cotan included in the second volume of the trilogy Years, where Pablo Milanés pays homage to traditional Cuban music accompanied by artists such as Luis Peña el Albino and Cotan himself. To close the disc —predominantly troubadour— comes this tribute to son, at last “free and sovereign”. 

As if looking for a foundation stone, the refrain travels to the most distant root of our culture, the overshadowed universe of the original peoples, where the maguey and the yaya (both words of Taíno origin) meet to “make a candle”. The magueyes, like all the agaves, are succulents, water-accumulating beings that die the same year they bloom. In Cuba we have 16 endemic species. It is amazing to see them together with orchids and oaks (our tabebuias) in stone mountains that today are crowns of the emerged island. 

Between the redondillas of this son a more plausible combustion is produced: the one that gives warmth to the changing Cuban identity.

Siento la nostalgia de palmeras / Celia Cruz

Although this version is included in the disc Boleros, from 2002, the theme is from Celia's time in Sonora Matancera. Just a year after dying, he returns to one of his last phonograms as a ripe fruit, about to fall. 

Cuba has some 80 species of native palms, but in the imaginary of what we call homeland, one prevails: Roystonea regia. When the Queen of Salsa feels nostalgic for palm trees —as Heredia and Martí used to do—, it is obvious to which one she is referring. Face to face, the Queen sings to the Royal. 

The gender Roystonea It comprises 10 species distributed throughout the Caribbean basin. Five of them are heritage of our flora. r lenis, Maisian R., R. violacea and R. stelata They are also endemic. R. stelata it is considered extinct; the others are at risk of disappearing. Let us also think of them when we listen to this work.  

The distribution of the royal palm also includes southern Florida. It is not to the absence of a tree that Celia sings, but to the absence of herself.

72 hacheros pa´ un palo / Manolito Simonet and his Trabuco

The respectability of certain sacred trees —because they are also very hard— is a recurring motif in Cuban music. I wish such awareness would come down to this deaf world. But “where are you going to find 72 paleros de honor?” says Trabuco. 

The orchestration, variations and additions to the lyrics of this song by Arsenio Rodríguez subtly quote the classic Mata siguaraya -the tradition is so strong-, as if with Trichilia havanensis the identity of the indestructible stick will be revealed. Because Arsenio doesn't answer his big question (what stick will it be?); only gives as possible two powerful and slow-growing trees, with which we close this playlist before missing the seed.

Ironwood or caguairán (Guibourtia hymenaeifolia) is a fabaceae endemic to Cuba, with a delicate appearance and deep root. Celebrated for a virtue that makes him deadly and symbolizable, urbanites know little more about him and Ecured hardly shows a bad photo. The Guayacan (Guaiacum officinale) is native to tropical America, including several Caribbean islands like ours. It should be the pride of every Cuban garden; every simple schoolboy could celebrate its blue bloom like the beauty that returns each year. For the faith of those children and the musical memory of this country, let's sow.

Juan Carlos Saenz de Calahorra Juan Carlos Saenz de Calahorra Habanero from the south and Cuban from the far east. As a child I stole violets with a friend who is now a great botanist. I wanted, after making haiku and movies, a native garden in the Young Show. Ceased from my functions, I had the good sense to sow. Rascabarriga, sabicú, aguedita are words that I love and they love me. More posts

Leave a comment

View published comments
  1. José Enrique says:

    A playlist that shows the union between culture and science, art and nature. Thanks.

  2. Eduardo Seraphim says:

    Good morning ! Here from Brazil I have read your text with much admiration. I am a self-taught in the study of "native Brazilian" tree species. I loved the poetic and informative way you spoke in the text. I will be in Havana for the first time next May and I was looking for information about Cuban flora. Thanks for the information. You have here also a collaborator from Brazil.

View published comments

We also suggest