The guaracha is a genre of Cuban popular music, of rapid tempo and with lyrics. The word had been used in this sense at least since the late 18th and early 19th century. Guarachas were played and sung in musical theatres and in low-class dance salons. They became an integral part of Bufo comic theatre in the mid-19th century. During the later 19th and the early 20th century the guaracha was a favourite musical form in the brothels of Havana. The guaracha survives today in the repertoires of some trova musicians, conjuntos and Cuban-style big bands. .
Early uses of the word
Though the word may be historically of Spanish origin, its use in this context is of indigenous Cuban origin. These are excerpts from reference sources, in date order: A Latin American carol "Convidando esta la noche" dates from at least the mid 17th century and both mentions and is a guaracha. It was composed or collected by Juan Garcia de Zespedes, 1620-1678, Puebla, Mexico. This is a Spanish guaracha, a musical style popular in Caribbean colonies. "Happily celebrating, some lovely shepherds sing the new style of juguetes for a guaracha. In this guaracha we celebrate while the baby boy is lost in dreams. Play and dance because we have fire in the ice and ice in the fire."
- The Gazeta de Barcelona has a number of advertisements for music that mention the guaracha. The earliest mention in this source is #64, dated 11 August 1789, where there is an entry that reads "...otra del Sr. Brito, Portugues: el fandango, la guaracha y seis contradanzas, todo en cifra para guitarra...". A later entry #83, 15 October 1796, refers to a "...guaracha intitulada Tarántula...".
- "Báile de la gentualla casi desuado" (dance for the rabble, somewhat old-fashioned). Leal comments on this: "The bailes de la gentualla are known on other occasions as bailes de cuna where people of different races mix. The guaracha employs the structure soloist–coro, that is to say, verses or passages vary between the chorus and the soloist, improvisation occurs, and references made to daily matters, peppered with crafty witticisms." 
- "Una canción popular que se canta a coro... Música u orquesta pobre, compuesta de acordeón o guitarra, güiro, maracas, etc". (a popular song, which is sung alternately (call & response?)... humble music and band &c).
- "Cierto género musical" (a particular genre of music).
These references are all to music; but whether of the same type is not quite clear. The usage of guaracha is sometimes extended, then meaning, generally, to have a good time. A different sense of the word means jest or diversion.
Guaracha as a dance
There is little evidence as to what style of dance was originally performed to the guaracha in Cuba. Some engravings from the 19th century suggest that it was a dance of independent couples, that is, not a sequence dance such as the contradanza. The prototype independent couples dance was the waltz (early 19th century Vals in Cuba). The first creole dance form in Cuba known for certain to be danced by independent couples was the danzón. If the guaracha is an earlier example, this would be interesting from a dance history point of view.
Guarachas in bufo theatre
During the 19th century, the bufo theatre, with its robust humour, its creolized characters and its guarachas, played a part in the movement for the emancipation of slaves and the independence of Cuba. They played a part in criticising authorities, lampooning public figures and supporting heroic revolutionaries. Satire and humour are significant weapons for a subjugated people.
In 1869 at the Teatro Villanueva in Havana an anti-Spanish bufo was playing, when suddenly some Spanish Voluntarios attacked the theatre, killing some ten or so patrons. The context was that the Ten Years' War had started the previous year, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes had freed his slaves, and declared Cuban independence. Creole sentiments were running high, and the Colonial government and their rich Spanish traders were reacting. Not for the first or the last time, politics and music were closely intertwined, for musicians had been integrated since before 1800. Bufo theatres were shut down for some years after this tragic event.
In bufos the guaracha would occur at places indicated by the author: guaracheros would enter in coloured shirts, white trousers and boots, handkerchiefs on their heads, the women in white coats, and the group would perform the guaracha. In general the guaracha would involve a dialogue between the tiple, the tenor and the chorus. The best period of the guaracha on stage was early in the 20th century in the Alhambra theatre in Havana, when such composers as Jorge Anckermann, José Marín Varona and Manuel Mauri wrote numbers for the top stage singer Adolfo Colombo. Most of the leading trova musicians wrote guarachas: Pepe Sánchez, Sindo Garay, Manuel Corona, and later Ñico Saquito.
The use of lyrics in theatre music is common, but their use in popular dance music was not common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only the habanera had sung lyrics, and the guaracha definitely predates the habanera by some decades. Therefore, the guaracha is the first Cuban creole dance music which included singers.
The Havana Diario de la Marina of 1868 says: "The bufo troupe, we think, has an extensive repertory of tasty guarachas, with which to keep its public happy, better than the Italian songs."  The lyrics were full of slang, and dwelt on events and people in the news. Rhythmically, guaracha exhibits a series of rhythm combinations, such as 6/8 with 2/4.
Alejo Carpentier quotes a number of guaracha verses that illustrate the style:
- Mi marido se murió,
- Dios en el cielo lo tiene
- y que lo tenga tan tenido
- que acá jamás nunca vuelva.
- (My husband died,
- God in heaven has him;
- May he keep him so well
- That he never comes back!)
- No hay mulata más hermosa.
- más pilla y más sandunguera,
- ni que tenga en la cadera
- más azúcar que mi Rosa.
- (There's no mulatta more gorgeous,
- more wicked and more spicy,
- nor one whose hips have got
- more sugar than my Rosa!) 
Guaracha in the 20th century
In the mid-20th century the style was taken up by the conjuntos and big bands as a type of up-tempo music. Many of the early trovadores, such as Manuel Corona (who worked in a brothel area of Havana), composed and sung guarachas as a balance for the slower boleros and canciónes. Ñico Saquito was primarily a singer and composer of guarachas. The satirical lyric content also fitted well with the son, and many bands played both genres. Today it seems scarcely to exist as a distinct musical form, except in the hands of trova musicians; in larger groups it has been absorbed into the vast maw of Salsa.
Singers who could handle the fast lyrics and were good improvisors were called guaracheros or guaracheras. Celia Cruz was an example, though she, like Miguelito Valdés and Benny Moré, sung almost every type of Cuban lyric well. A better example is Cascarita (Orlando Guerra) who was distinctly less comfortable with boleros, but brilliant with fast numbers. In modern Cuban music so many threads are interwoven that one cannot easily distinguish these older roots. Perhaps in the lyrics of Los Van Van the topicality and sauciness of the old guarachas found new life, though the rhythm would have surprised the old-timers.
Among other composers who have written Guarachas is Morton Gould – the piece is found in the third movement of his Latin American Symphonette (Symphonette No. 4) (1940). Later in the 1980s Pedro Luis Ferrer and Virulo (Alejandro García Villalón) sought to renovate the guaracha, devising modern takes on the old themes.
Guaracha in Puerto Rico
During the 19th century, performing groups arrived in Puerto Rico from Cuba, bringing with them Cuban styles such as the son and the guaracha. Later, the guaracha took on a style of its own in Puerto Rico and became part of other Puerto Rican customs, such as the sung rosaries, the baquiné, Christmas music and children's songs
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Its modern, jazzy, salsa style was typified by Cortijo y su Combo, Ismael Rivera and Myrta Silva, a singer of La Sonora Matancera better known as "La Reina de la Guaracha". The lyrics of the guaracha is sung by a soloist or duo accompanied by a chorus in a dialogue. As instrumentation the güiro using a cylinder fork or small trident plays the rhythm and the guitar and Puerto Rican cuatro provide the accompaniment, plus other instruments similar to those of a Cuban conjunto.
- Díaz Ayala, Cristóbal 1981. Música cubana del Areyto a la Nueva Trova. 2nd rev ed, Cubanacan, San Juan P.R.
- Alternatively, Giro Radamés 2007. Diccionario enciclopédico de la música en Cuba vol 2, p179 says the term is "of Spanish (Andalusian) origin, and the dance was a kind of zapateo" [transl: contrib.] and the Diccionario de la música Labor says "We don't know when it originated; [the word] is supposed to have been used originally for a dance of Spanish origin". However the word may originally have been used, in the context of Cuban music the text here is accurate.
- Pichardo, Esteban 1836. Diccionario provincial casi razonado de vozes y frases cubanas. La Habana. "Báile de la gentualla casi desuado". p303, 1985 reprint.
- Leal, Rine 1982. La selva oscura: de los bufos a la neocolonia (historia del teatro cubano de 1868 a 1902). La Habana.
- Canizares, Dulcila 2000. San Isidro 1910: Alberto Yarini y su epocha. La Habana.
- Fernandez Robaina, Tomas 1983. Recuerdos secretos de los mujeres publicas. La Habana.
- see note 2
- Mangado y Artigas, Josep María 1998. La guitarra en Cataluña, 1769–1939. Tecla, London. p560
- Pichardo, Esteban 1836. Diccionario provincial casi razonado de vozes y frases cubanas. La Habana. p303, 1985 reprint.
- Leal, Rine 1982. La selva oscura, de los Bufos a la neo colonia: historia del teatro cubano de 1868 a 1902. La Habana. p19 (contributor's rough translation)
- Ortiz, Fernando 1974. Nuevo catauro de cubanismos. La Habana.
- Santiesteban, Argelio 1985. El habla popular cubana de hoy. La Habana. p239
- An illustration in Leal, Rine 1982. La seva oscura: de los bufos a la colonia. La Habana. Illustrations following p67 include one subtitled La guaracha es un símbolo del bufo, su german musical, but without data on its source. This engraving shows persons of lower class dancing in couples.
- Leal, Rine 1986. Teatro del siglo XIX. La Habana.
- Leal, Rine 1982. La selva oscura, de los Bufos a la neo colonia: historia del teatro cubano de 1868 a 1902. La Habana.
- Giro Radamés 2007. Diccionario enciclopédico de la música en Cuba. La Habana. vol 2, p179
- From Leal, Rine 1982. La selva oscura: de los bufos a la neocolonia (historia del teatro cubano de 1868 a 1902). La Habana. p19 (contributor's translation).
- Orovio, Helio 2004. Cuban music from A to Z. Duke University, Durham NC; Tumi, Bath. p101
- A Cuban source lists a range of guaracha lyrics: [Anon] 1882. Guarachas cubanas: curiosa recopilación desde las más antiguas hasta las más modernas. La Habana, reprint 1963. The text of this book is not available on-line.
- Carpentier, Alejo 2001 . Music in Cuba. Minniapolis MN.