Monday, 18 January 2010

The Rebel Quintet - Part II

We were staying in a beautiful mountain lodge at the entrance of the Sierra Maestra National Park. The old geezers had come from the nearby town of Bartolomé Masó, as they usually do to perform for other visitors. As the light was fading away, when they finished their music, we went to the bar area to share some Cristal beers and some mojitos. A pig was being roasted in the backyard and we were very happy with how the shoot was going so far after two especially good days. Food, drinks and a great story: What else could we ask for?

As one of them was telling me I translated to Ian, Mike and Martin:

They were born and raised in those mountains. His father, Rafael Medina, had a nearly isolated coffee farm up in the mountains. An uncle of them used to play the guitar and they learned from him very basic cords. It was 1956 and they were teenagers.

At that time, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, joined by 80 fellows, had landed of a nearly drowning leisure yacht in the nearby coast, following their plans of joining Frank País in his uprising against the Batista illegitimate government. Two days later, they were discovered by the soldiers that shot them forcing their way into the sugar cane fields and later into the mountains. Only 12 of them survived, including Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara. In the chaos they separated in 3 groups, thinking all the others had died. After days of wondering through the jungle with no food and injured, they finally found help in the peasants of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. With their collaboration the 12 survivors reunited two weeks later.

Fidel Castro, Sierra Maestra, 1960 ca. (Picture by Raul Corrales)

Fidel Castro needed a hidden refuge to think about their next moves and the thick jungle was the perfect environment. The Medina’s house was the closest inhabited field. And so, the life of some coffee farmers was about to be part of the Cuban history.

The Medina’s house was a forced passage from the rebels’ base camp to the road leading to the village, where they found food and materials to build their huts. They used to stop there for a coffee and a quick chat, while the teenagers amuse the conversations with some music.

Further up in the mountains the rebels’ camp was growing quickly. They built a little nursing and they founded a newspaper and a radio station: "Radio Rebelde". When they came up with the idea of finding a band, the solution was not very far away.

The old headquarters in Sierra Maestra. 1962 (Picture by Alberto Korda)

Fidel Castro hired the Medina brothers to play on the radio to encourage the rebels and tease the enemy. As their knowledge in music was so poor, they parody popular songs with very simple revolutionary lyrics. When the battle was taken in the jungle the rebels hid loudspeakers on the trees to demoralise the Batista soldiers. The songs, with gibing critics against the government and based on guajiro (countryman) music style, were very accessible to the peasants and soon the Rebel Quintet was well known in the area.
Here you can make a secure and free download of "Soy Fidelista", a song from the Revel Quintet album.

The Medina brothers were happy with their success, but firing arms and killing soldiers seemed much more exciting and heroic than playing old guitars and maracas. They encouraged Castro to let them fight, but Fidel answered them their arm was much more powerful: ideology.


From the right: Cuban Guide, Mike Lerner, Martin Herring, Ian Wright and Adela Ucar at the high point where "Radio Revelde" was set up in Sierra Maestra.

Analphabetic and ignorant as they were, they thought Fidel was going to give them a special super killer weapon with some massive firing device called “Ideology”. They waited for it, but it never arrived. Only after the Revolution succeeded and the Medina brothers were sent to a school founded by the new government, they learnt what ideology was.

We were stocked as the story was coming out of their mouths. Obviously, we had done our research and we knew who we were going to meet. But having in front of you some 70 year old soldiers that shacked Fidel and Che Guevara’s hands in those early days of the Revolution and speak about their part in history with so much passion, gives the information a different dimension.

That was one of our best nights in Cuba.


I love this picture of them. We gave them the release form to sign. They got together in a corner and all of them listened carefully as the older one read the form. When he finished, he asked “Do we agree?”. Everybody said yes and they signed. This form of consensus made me smile.

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