The recent death in Florida of Cuban actor, singer and musical producer Guillermo Alvarez Guedes makes it necessary to make a review of his extensive work, his incomparable contribution to humour based on Cubans’ way of being. One of the greatest diffusers – to avoid the absolute – of the humoristic popular story in Latin America has taken it with him.
In one of his records, Alvarez Guedes talks about the satisfaction he got out of the anecdote of a man whose stories saved his life. According to that person’s testimony, at one time he suffered a strong pain in the chest and when he was being transported to the hospital he asked for a tape recorder to listen to his stories, which had a relaxing effect on him and he didn’t get to have a heart attack.
That has been the humour for Cubans since the beginnings of the nation, the best medicine for all their problems. If we are fine we laugh from satisfaction, but if we are not fine, if we are going through a difficult situation, we also laugh to lighten the burden. That is the teaching of the latter testimony.
Guillermo Alvarez Guedes was born in 1927 in Unión de Reyes, Matanzas province, and left Cuba in 1960 when he already enjoyed great recognition as a comedian, having performed on radio, television and cabarets together with the principal figures of scenic art. He was also successful as a musical producer under the label Gemas, where Rolando Laserie, Elena Burke, Chico O’Farrill, Bebo Valdés, Celeste Mendoza, among others, recorded.
Though he made films and was successful on television – very well remembered in the weekly programme El Casino de la Alegría (CMQ radio station, in the 1950s) – and in legendary musical shows like El Solar (Montmartre Cabaret, 1953), with choreography by Alberto Alonso, where he shared the stage with Benny Moré, Olga Guillot and Carlos Pou, he preferred the radio, where he reigned until his death.
However, for those who did not know about that area of his art, and for the great majority of people, Alvarez Guedes is the man of the thousand humour stories which, brought together in 32 records, gave him universality. That greater diffusion of his work began starting 1973, expanding his space of influence.
Those recordings got to the island immediately through cassettes and since then people have been listening to them, as happened with the music of Celia Cruz, with whom he shared the flight to the United States on October 23, 1960.
The stories, comedies and jokes of Alvarez Guedes cover all situations in life: dramatic, happy moments, tragic, festive; work related, religious, familiar, political, social. In them, the actor narrates, dialogues, describes, interacts, parodies, satirises and makes us laugh even about the unusual.
To construct a humoristic work of that dimension, it is to be expected that its creator explored well vernacular literature, Cuban theatre and folklore, while researching the psychology of Cubans in its popular expression, but above all, he read deeply the iconic book of Jorge Mañach, Indagación del choteo (about making jokes).
Joking, making fun, satirising are the seasoning of the vernacular humour of Alvarez Guedes in each situation of the characters represented, though the essential component, the modulator of the humoristic actions, is the language used.
Many of the comedian’s stories are structured around a word, more exactly a “dirty word,” which bursts out at some time and causes the climax and the laughter. It can dynamite the speech by the U.N. Secretary General or a character in the barrio.
The humoristic characteristic of Alvarez Guedes is made up by a character (himself) constructed with the charm of Cubans’ popular wisdom, the flavour of their language, their mischievousness and free and easy character, but controlled by his talent to nor trespass the limit of the strictly coarse or vulgar. His art allows him to work that miracle.
The most marvellous pieces of his creation include those representing the situation of Cuban immigrants in Miami and, by extension, the references to the changes in this city to the extent that it was populated by Latin Americans, when the Spanish language started replacing English and the Latin customs started to settle in Florida.
For example, the situation presented in the home of Cheo Gómez, “the first Cuban astronaut,” the day in which his ship leaves for space and the media interview his wife, who has “suffered 18 attacks that morning,” a phrase impossible to translate by someone who has not been born on the island, stands out among that thematic collection.
As a traveller and constant observer of behaviours, language and customs of other parts of the world, Alvarez Guedes also represented and parodied Spaniards, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, moving among a great diversity of subjects and contexts.
Guillermo Alvarez Guedes must now be in some place in infinity and in the history of Cuban culture, sharing – perhaps playing dominoes – a table with Leopoldo Fernández, Anibal de Mar and Mimi Cal, while Germán Pinelli, Alberto Garrido and Enrique Arredondo are commenting on the game. Like his comrades, in that imaginary game, Alvarez Guedes is unrepeatable, like his time.
Since the 1970s, when his recordings started getting to Cuba, several generations of humorists from the island have used his jokes and have even tried to reproduce (in vain) his way of telling them. It’s time to recognise here, publicly, his mastery, his essential Cuban identity, which lives on in his work. (2013)
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