‘Chan Chan’: Toward an Interpretation

Buena Vista Social Club. Quite possibly no articulation of the human experience reaches universality more closely than the collection of Cuban folk songs within this album.

It begins with that evocative melody, stirring up memories from the past, where the summer sun once intoxicated us with youthful ennui and distant mirages teased us in our dreams. It suspends us in time. It conflates all periods of history.

I’m speaking of that mysterious tune ‘Chan Chan’, whose meaning has been difficult to pin down over the years since Compay Segundo wrote it in 1987. PBS Music describes the song as a “series of images without a clear narrative arc. Here, a poetic erotica is juxtaposed with–and made more poignant by–references to the back-breaking work of the sugar cane fields.” Even so, isn’t there more to these epigrammatic lyrics?

The anthropologist Mario Lamo Jiménez reminisces about the times he spent with Segundo, before the singer’s death in 2003, creating a Cuban cultural festival at the Smithsonian, saying, “Compay told me how he had known someone named Chan Chan, who with his girlfriend Juanica used to shake a jib to sieve sand on the shore: Juanica looked so sexy shaking the jib that Chan Chan felt ashamed others might see her doing this miserable work, and from there this beautiful song was born” (my trans.).

What we have, then, is a piece of the puzzle: let’s transport to the beach, say, of the Bahía del Nipe, where the tepid Caribbean waters lap at the shore. A peasant couple wracks on a jib, sifting through the white sand for sea shells, clams, anything of value the ocean may have yielded from its treasure-hoard. It’s truly a scene of desperation, wherein the purest kind of beauty manifests itself in love, pride, and, ultimately, shame.

It’s the kind of shame that sends Chan Chan wandering, from place to place, village to village, seeking the means to justify his pride in the beautiful Juanica:

Chan Chan

De Alto Cedro, voy para Marcaní | From Alto Cedro, I head for Marcaní.

Llego a Cueto, voy para MayaríI arrive in Cueto, then head for Mayarí.

Mayarí, Cuba. Photo by Michael Reardon. http://reardonmichael.com/

That scene of simultaneous pride and misery subsequently unfolds:

El cariño que te tengo | There’s no denying the love

No te lo puedo negar | That I have for you.

Se me sale la babita | In fact I can’t help but

Yo no lo puedo evitar | Almost drool at the thought of you.


Cuando Juanica y Chan Chan | Those times when Juanica and Chan Chan

En el mar cernía arena | Used to sieve through the sand on the beach,

Como sacudía el jibe | How that jib shook violently,

A Chan Chan le daba pena | Chan Chan felt ashamed.

A couple from Mayarí, Cuba. Photo by Michael Reardon. http://reardonmichael.com/

The final verse of ‘Chan Chan’ does not resolve the desperation of this aloof itinerant. He longs to find means of justifying his pride in Juanica’s beauty. The lines may allude to the “back-breaking work of the sugar cane fields” mentioned above in PBS Music’s reading. A separate Freudian reading, however, suggests that there is sexual meaning within these lines. “This last verse probably carries a sexual insinuation. Following the most plausible reading, it is from the perspective of Juanica; the tree trunk represents the sex of Chan Chan and the phrase ‘to find home’ is used in the sense of having an orgasm” (my trans.).

Either way, it is certain that the verse is a series of Cubanisms, whose true meaning would only resonate with Hispanophones familiar with the Cuban dialect. With this in mind, I’ve chosen to translate according to the theme of travails that is elicited in the previous verses. Consequently we may interpret ‘to find home’ in the sense of Chan Chan finding that means of resolving his dissatisfaction:

Limpia el camino de pajaShed the chaff from the stalk;

Que no me quiero sentarI don’t want to sit

En aquél tronco que veo | On that trunk as it is,

Y así no puedo llegar | And as such I’ll never find home.

‘Chan Chan’ isn’t separate from its historical context, either. Cuba, as the historian Ramiro Guerra y Sanchez once said, is the creation of a distinct collection of human expressions. ‘Chan Chan’ is a cry from the depths of economic hardship, sown by the offsets of political instability. But like the purest form of beauty that manifests in Chan Chan’s chagrin and jealous love for Juanica, Segundo’s creation seamlessly exudes charm.

It’s a charm that supplants poverty.


Note: Featured image also property

compay segundo.jpg
Compay Segundo (1927-2003).