Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary dreams came to a scraggly end 50 years ago at a schoolhouse in La Higuera, Bolvia. The Bolivian army, with help from the CIA, captured Che leading a raggedy band of guerrilla rebels when the call came to execute to Argentinian Marxist on Oct. 9, 1967. Since then, his iconic image has traveled the world over, whether painted on murals in Palestine or selling pale lager beers in Los Angeles. Che’s dual legacy—the commercial and the communist—lives on a half-century after his death.
But “Comandante Che” inspired more than just t-shirts. Coming to prominence during the Cuban Revolution of 1959, he became the international left’s first “rock star” long before his image adorned Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello’s amp. It’s no surprise, then, that Che’s enduring legacy is captured in song. Folk musicians lionized him with homages from Chile to Cuba and beyond during the revolutionary 1960’s. Rappers like Jay-Z name drop Che in their boisterous lyrics these days. Hell, Chicago rapper Rhymefest’s real first name is “Che!”
Love or hate him, here’s the 10 best tributes to “el Che” on the 50th anniversary of his death.
10.) The Clap – Che Guevara T-Shirt Wearer
The Clap, an Australian punk band, proves that songs about “el Che” extends beyond the realm of Latin American folk with “Che Guevara T-Shirt Wearer.” The only way the singer rhymes “Guevara” with “Wearer” is by mispronouncing the Argentine revolutionary’s name as “Shea Gwayverah,” something that only adds to the charm of the song. The lyrics assail people who wear Che shirts but don’t know their history, a theme that appeals to leftists who hate trendy activists and right-wingers who think all Che-loving activists are clueless alike.
9.) Soledad Bravo – Hasta Siempre, Comandante
Venezuelan singer Soledad Bravo strips down Carlos Puebla’s classic 1965 guajira written after Fidel Castro read Che’s private farewell letter on television to a stunned Cuba. That year, Guevara left to help the armed revolution in the Congo, and later exported insurrection to Bolivia where he died 50 years ago. Puebla’s song has been covered hundreds of times, but best among them is Bravo’s version. Her haunting vibrato gives it an emotional edge over the original and the song’s folkloric feel is every bit as authentic. But when socialist Hugo Chavez later came to power in Venezuela, Bravo told a newspaper that it was a “historical obligation” for the country to liberate itself from him.
8.) Apurimac – Ay, Che Camino
Apurimac, named for the mighty river that flows through Peru, isn’t a typical Andean-inspired band. They’re actually from Athens, Greece and formed in 1983. In “Ay, Che Camino,” Apurimac interprets the poetry and music of Argentinian poet-musician Alfredo De Robertis. Large pan pipes known as zampoñas intermingle with flute melodies in this relaxed tribute that reminds folks that Che’s path is “like a wind that passes, liberty’s wind.”
7.) El Tri – Che Guevara
Legendary Mexican rockers El Tri penned a tribute song by name to Che Guevara for their 2005 album Más allá del bien y del mal. Lead singer Alex Lora’s raspy vocals tell Che’s story on the bluesy rock jam. “Che Guevara” credits the rebel with “making Uncle Sam and those who didn’t believe in revolution tremble.” So lofty are the song’s lyrics that they put Che as the unrivaled “father of the Cuban revolution” above Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos. See, Mexicans and Argentinians aren’t locked in a totally unflinching feud!
6.) Sara Gonzalez – Andes lo que Andes
Sara Gonzalez belonged to the political “Nueva Trova” music movement before her passing in 2012. Naturally, the Cuban singer had a song dedicated to Che, “Andes lo que Andes” in her catalog. Giving the genre a much-needed feminine touch, “Andes lo que Andes” is a revolutionary ballad that taps into Andean folk instrumentation. The bombo, a distinctly Latin American bass drum with a deep, resonate sound, anchors Gonzalez’s impassioned revolutionary vocals.
5.) Inti-Illimani – El Aparecido
Having formed in the same year of Che’s execution, Inti-Illimani is currently celebrating its 50th year as a band. Stalwarts of the New Chilean Song Movement, when Inti-Illimani wasn’t working with the legendary Victor Jara in the recording studio, the group masterfully reinterpreted his songs. Jara wrote an ode to Che’s guerrilla movement in Bolivia called “El Aparecido.” The Chilean Community Party didn’t like the song; they felt it promoted armed revolution when their position was to win through the ballot, not the bullet. Inti-Illimani’s cover captured the spirit of a small band of rebels led by Che on the run from the CIA and Bolivian army; or as the song poetically put it, “ravens with talons of gold.”
4) Silvio Rodriguez – Fusil Contra Fusil
Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez helped lead the “Nueva Trova” musical movement with songs like “Fusil Contra Fusil.” He wrote and recorded the homage to Che in 1968, before the musician had formal training. The studio version adds layers of instrumentation that give it a distinct folk-rock feel. “Fusil Contra Fusil” (which translates to “rifle against rifle”) later appeared on the soundtrack of Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 two-part biopic, Che. Decades after the song, Rodriguez recorded “Tonada del Albedrio” to remind the world of Che before his image became commercialized, but “Fusil Contra Fusil” is the singer’s best remembered dedication.
3.) Victor Jara – Zamba del Che
The Chilean folk legend Victor Jara met Che Guevara before during a trip to Cuba. Years later, the singer-poet recorded “Zamba del Che” to eulogize Guevara on his 1969 album Pongo en tus manos abiertas. The warm tenor of Jara’s voice declared “jungles, pampas, and mountains / homeland or death, your destiny” over an intricate guitar melody. Jara, like Che, was executed in a hail of bullets when Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. His song, like Che, withstands the test of time. When visiting Boyle Heights in April, Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour sang the first verse of “Zamba del Che” before declaring “Victor Jara’s my man!”
2.) Atahualpa Yupanqui – Nada Mas
Atahualpa Yupanqui is the most revered Argentinian folk musician alongside the late Mercedes Sosa. Being a member of the Communist Party, Yupanqui faced censorship in Argentina through the 1950’s. He broke with the party later on, a move that allowed him greater exposure. But after Che’s death in Bolivia, Yupanqui penned a tribute to his fellow Argentinian in “Nada mas” where he sings, “Some people die to be born again / If anyone has any doubt / Go and ask “el Che” / Nothing else, nothing else.”
1.) Carlos Puebla – Hasta Siempre, Comandante
If the late Cuban photographer Alberto Korda’s image of Che became the most iconic, Carlos Puebla’s tribute became its most recognizable counterpart in song. Unlike many other tributes that came after, Puebla wrote the timeless tune before Che died. He felt a surge of inspiration to pen the guajira when Fidel Castro ended rumors of Che’s whereabouts by publicly reading a letter where the Argentinian revolutionary declared he left the island behind to foster rebellion elsewhere in the world. Puebla’s lyrics recount Che’s contribution to the Cuban Revolution in the most exalted terms before bidding farewell.