A carved Condor soars in the stone of Machu Pichu (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Sometimes I choose the subjects for my article and sometimes they burst in like unruly children, wishing to be noticed. This time, however, my subject sweetly landed upon my ear. I was learning more about the quena, a beautiful pipe of the Andes, and listening to the clear haunting beauty of its voice when a song caught my attention. I knew the tune! How could that be? I listened more closely and words began to whisper down long corridors of memory.
“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” …
How was it that I was hearing a song of my childhood thorough a Peruvian pipe?
I began the journey of exploration, having found another intersection between the places with which I am familiar and the beauty of Peru.
The simplest telling of the story is that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were playing in the same theater in Paris as Los Incas a touring group of musicians from the River Plate in South America. Simon became enthralled with the tune they billed ‘Paso Del Condor’. He said, “I used to hang around every night to hear them play that. I loved it and I would play it all the time, and then I thought, ‘Let’s put words to it.’” (1) Simon engaged Los Incas to play the instrumentals while he and Garfunkel sang the lyrics to “The Flight of the Condor”.
Simon asked about the tune, but Los Incas were evidently unaware they were using a composition of Daniel Alomia Robles, written in 1913 to accompany an operetta or ‘zarzuela’ called “El Condor Pasa”. A recording from 1917 can be heard here.
Paul Simon does not get royalties from the El Condor Pasa. In an interview with the newspaper, Diario la primera Peru, Armando Robles Godoy, con of Daniel Alomia Robles, tells reporters that during the 1970’s there was an ‘almost friendly’ trail. He describes Simon as ‘being a genius’ and a ‘different type of lover of culture’. Armando says that Paul was not told that the song had been written by his father but rather that it was a popular folk melody from the 1800s.(2)
Simon traveled to Peru on occasion, and he recalls that once,
“we stopped at a small Indian village with little houses and no roads,” he says. “A girl was playing a nylon string guitar. I listened awhile and told her, ‘I know a song from South America.’ I played El Condor Pasa. She said, ‘I know a song from America.’ And she played The Sound of Silence.” (3))
The girl had no idea who he was. Musical worlds had collided.
Daniel Alomia Robles was gifted as a child with a musical ear. He loved to sing and imitate the sounds that he heard. As he grew older, he decided to attend medical school, however he left school to travel around Peru collecting the music and folktales of the people.
He also became somewhat embroiled in the politics of his day, befriending and supporting Peruvian President Guillermo Billinghurst, according to Jose Antonio Mazzotti in his paper, “Revista de Critica Literaria LatinoAmericana Ano XL, No 80 Lima-Boston).(4) He further testifies that Billinghurst proposed an 8 hour work day, a balanced budget, and fair treatment for all people. While he may have won the hearts of his constituents, the congress which he had determined to ignore, had him imprisoned and replaced.(5)(6)
There are echoes of this conflict in the play El Condor Pasa written by Daniel Robles and Julio Baudouin, with its theme of revolution and freedom. The story’s main character is Frank, a Yapac miner. He feels there should be more to life than just working in the mines. His fellow workers tell him he should be grateful that he has a job. Not satisfied with their answer, he bemoans his life, including his mestizo appearance.
Verbally abused by the owners of the mine, the mine workers must return to work rather than enjoy the celebration of their friends were are getting married. Frank finds this upsetting and stands up to Mr. McKing, one of the owners. Mr. McKing is angry until Franks’ mother comes along and explains that Frank is actually his son. They leave together at the end of the first act.
During the second act, the man that Frank believes to be his father, Higinio, follows Mr. McKing after a drunken argument. When they get to a gorge, Higinio pushes a boulder onto Mr. McKing, killing him. The other owner of the mine, Mr. Cup, shows up with a gun in hand seeking the murderer of his partner. Frank ends up killing him. The miners are distraught at the turn of events, but they are encouraged by the appearance of a condor, signaling freedom. The strains of El Condor Pasa now play and the musical ends.
The theme is carried around the world as the music of Daniel Alomia Robles and the lyrics of Paul Simon join in the anthem of freedom. The director of the Institute of Ethnomusicology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), Renato Romero. “‘El Condor Pasa’ became independent of the dramatic sketch in the form of a song and acquired a worldwide popularity and today is like a banner of Peru abroad,” (reported in El comercio)(7)
The song has traveled everywhere and now means many things to many people. A commenter named Ralph, divulged on songfacts.com that the song was used in Russia as a form of passive resistance. He says the lyrics that Paul Simon wrote gave the people hope. He says the lines “I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail” signified freedom. “A sparrow is free and swift – able to come and go as it pleases, a snail; slow and stupid”
(6) The outlook A Weekly Newspaper vol. 151 https://books.google.com/books?id=ephFAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA329&lpg=PA329&dq=president+william+billinghurst+peru&source=bl&ots=e08b3VVxdN&sig=IdgEyCGzM6M52ZlyMu9tO8_2j0I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiykaWU6a3KAhVD0mMKHS7MBqwQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=president%20william%20billinghurst%20peru&f=false