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The Magic and Influence of a Favorite Peruvian Song: The Condor Pasa

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Since it was first written by Almonia Robles in the early 20th century, musicians have created more than 4,000 different versions of “The Condor Pasa.”  What is it about this song that’s made it so popular? The answer to this question has everything to do with Peru’s complex and deep cultural and social history.

What’s in a song?

(Photo: Wikimedia)
If you’ve been to Peru for any length of time, chances are that you’ve heard many versions of The Condor Pasa. It’s a song that you’ll hear inside of restaurants and cafes, in the streets, and on the radio. For an artist whose work has been influenced by the musical history of Peru, chances are that they’ve created a version of The Condor Pasa at one time or another. The song is so popular within Peru, that most consider it to be Peru’s unofficial second national anthem.

Where did the song come from?

(Photo: Flickr)

The song was originally an orchestral piece in a Peruvian zarzuela, which is a traditional musical play. During the course of the early 20th century, the play was performed many hundreds of times. The zarzuela itself isn’t rooted within an Andean tradition, but rather in the European tradition. Despite this, the origins of The Condor Pasa are anything but European.

Before he composed this song, Alomía Robles spent many years traveling around Peru and exploring distinct musical styles from the many regions of the country. He traveled across the jungle, the coasts, working as an ethnomusicologist in order to learn about Peru’s rich folklore traditions. It was with these influences that he realized that traditional Andean musical styles worked with a pentatonic scale. These are the kinds of findings that he often published in scholarly articles that he published about traditional music of the Americas. But along with studying Andean music, he was also a composer. Only after spending many years traveling across Peru to learn about traditional musical styles did he compose The Condor Pasa.

What are the traditional aspects of The Condor Pasa?

By looking into the musical aspects of The Condor Pasa, there is a lot that we can learn about traditional Andean music. At closer inspection, this single song actually contains aspects of several traditional Andean and European styles.

The Harawi

The Harawi is a musical style that is characterized by sad and slow melodies. A harawi is also a traditional way of storytelling and poetry. This Andean style is often present in songs about loss such as for funerals. But it is also a popular style in songs that deal with longing for a beloved, or with themes related to unrequited love. The influence of the Harawi is strongly present in The Condor Pasa. The slow down tempo rhythm is very evident during the opening phase of the song, which traditionally starts with the sounds of flutes or panpipes which are played in a minor key.

Here is an example of a traditional Andean Harawi. This particular song is devoted to longing and love: 

Huayno

The Huayno is one of the most fundamental musical styles of Peru. A characteristic aspect of this style is related to the rhythm. A huayno song is typically composed of one strong beat, followed by two weak beats. There is also usually a singer who sings high-pitched vocals. Typical huayno instruments include the quena, harp, accordion, violin, and guitar.  It’s origins stretch to the colonial period, but as in is the case for all contemporary Andean musical styles, it roots go much deeper than that.

Here is an example of a traditional Huayno song. As is a characteristic of many Andean songs, the lyrics of this huayno touch on the themes of longing, sadness, and loss

 

The Condor Pasa is a song about mining, loss, and about hope

(Photo: Google maps)

According to writer Manuel Orbegozo “The operetta is about a group of Andean miners who are exploited by their boss. The condor that looks at them from the sky becomes the symbol of freedom for them to achieve.”

Many believe that Robles, the author of The Condor Pasa, was inspired to write the song after visiting miners from who were working in unimaginably brutal conditions at Cerro de Pasco, a gigantic mountain, located in Peru, that is still being mined today.

Noteworthy influences over the years

Los Incas

The first artists recognized for bringing The Condor Pasa out of Peru and into other parts of the world were Los Incas. By the time that they started playing the song, they weren’t aware that the original author of the song was still alive. As is the case for many folklore melodies, they were under the impression that the song had been handed down for many generations across the Andes. By the time that they were playing the song, and traveling around the world in the 1960s, the song was already popular across the Andes. People of Peru knew of and played the song, almost universally.

Simon and Garfunkle cover the song

While the Incas were traveling and playing the song, Simon and Garfunkle heard them playing it and quickly fell in love with the song. Not knowing that the Incas themselves were playing a song that had a previous author, they neglected to give its original author credit for his composition. It’s for this reason that Robles’ son sued them, and won in court, for copyright infringement of the song.
By this time, though, the cat was already out of the bag to the world, and there was no going back. With the course of fewer than 50 years, this Peruvian song came to become famous around the world and came to represent the culture and the people of Peru.

Other versions of The Condor Pasa

Famous Peruvian Charango musician Jaime Torres covering the song

Leo Rojas mixes electronic rhythms with panpipes to offer a unique and highly popular version of The Condor Pasa

A contemporary dance interpretation of the song

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Cover photo: Wikimedia

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Scott Montgomery is a multi-medium storyteller and holistic creative, a travel guide and transformational coach, whose core mission is to help others to live authentically with purpose and intention in order to make an impact in the world. After earning his masters degree in creative writing at Arizona State University in 2013, he made the move to Peru in order to write about indigenous communities of the jungles and the Andes, and to explore what this might have to do with his own life path. These years of traveling and living across the country have helped him to embrace a more purposeful lifestyle that's guided by the values of collaboration, creativity, and transformation. To find out more about what Scott's up to and how you can get involved, visit his personal website www.voyagewithscott.com