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Changüí Majadero to bring the soul of Cuba to San Pedro

Gabriel Garcia was a 20-year-old music student in San Diego when he first heard the music of Changüí Guantanamo.

A friend handed him a CD of the Cuban group that performs the traditional island music of changüí defined by raw African beats and rhythms.

Awestruck by the simple earthy beauty of the songs, Garcia wanted to learn all there was about the band and its distinct sound.

Five years later, the Los Angeles native was living with band members in Guantanamo, Cuba, and now, with the help of Grammy-winning Chicana rock musician Martha Gonzalez, the 27-year-old guitarist and singer is bringing the original rural sounds of Cuba to San Pedro with his five-piece musical collective known as Changüí Majadero.

“I hope people will be inspired to find out more about changüí and to fall in love with the music just like I fell in love with the music,” said Garcia, who is actually of Mexican descent.

Changüí Majadero is scheduled to perform with Gonzalez, of the band Quetzal, on Oct. 2 at the Grand Annex.

“It’s going to be so much fun. It’s going to be grooving,” said Gonzalez. “I love these guys. I’m so in love with all of them. They’re all amazing, powerful musicians and it’s an honor for me to be on stage with them.”

The concert will be both an homage to the influential group that sparked Garcia’s love for changüí and a festive lesson in the traditional music of Cuba, with Changüí Majadero performing music by Changüí Guantanamo as well as a few original songs.

“It’s really beautiful that somebody who finds the music values it enough to want to continue to study it,” Gonzalez said of Garcia’s efforts to bring changüí to local audiences.

“He acknowledges himself as a student of the form and he goes out and looks for the masters and learns from them. The fact that he’s learning it and sharing it I think is really important and commendable,” Gonzalez added.

Changüí originated in the Guantanamo region of Cuba in the mid-1800s during the days of slavery. The sound was created in the rural regions as a form of party music, which later evolved into son, salsa and the foundation for other popular Latin music.

“The music sounds very raw, very African, very syncopated,” Garcia said of the unexpected rhythms that accent changüí. “Changüí is to Cuba what the blues is to American music. It’s the roots.”

As a guitarist, Garcia, who has a master’s degree in Afro-Latin music from UC San Diego, played jazz, blues and rock before he picked up the tres guitar, which is one of the essential instruments in changüí music.

“The sound of the tres guitar really intrigued me. But then I realized that I didn’t know how to play this beautiful instrument. I could pick up what I could from the (changüí) records, but in order to really learn this instrument I knew I had to go to Cuba,” he said.

With a contact given to him by a music professor he was able to connect with the Changüí Guantanamo band. He ended up living with various members.

“They’re the band for changüí, they’re the fathers of changüí,” Garcia said of Changüí Guantanamo, which formed in the 1940s and is still active today.

During his time in the city of Guantanamo, best known for the nearby U.S. naval base, Garcia soaked up all that he could from the musicians and learned the spirit behind the traditional music.

“What made me really fall in love with it, with changüí, is the humility of the people of Guantanamo,” he said. “You hear that humility in the music.”

The musician is now working on Changüí Majadero’s debut album and hopes to one day bring his idols from Cuba to America to perform.