El Condor Pasa: How a Peruvian Song Became a Global Hit

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El Condor Pasa is a composition recognized internationally, and a subject of evocation, inspiration and nostalgia about the majesty of the Inca Empire. Therefore, it is part of the Cultural Heritage of Peru”- National Institute of Peruvian Culture

Impossible not to be seduced by its melodies. Listening to “El Condor Pasa”, one understands why world musicians adopted this Peruvian classic. This beautiful tune can stir the soul of any human being. Setting aside nationalities, El Condor Pasa is a cultural patrimony, not just for Peru but for the whole world.

But how did this song break the frontiers of language and culture? The story began when, in 1894, a young Peruvian dropped out of school to visit the Peruvian Andes. His name was Daniel Alomía Robles.

Daniel Alomía Robles Drops Out Of School

El Condor PasaImage Source: Wikimedia

In 1894, Huanuqueño Daniel Alomía Robles was studying Medicine at San Marcos University, in Lima. Born in a well-to-do family, Robles was going to have a bright future. But one day, he suddenly quit medical school. Driven by his musical passion, Robles decided to travel across Peru to learn indigenous music. At first, nobody took him seriously.

Peruvian society was very segregated then. Due to racism and classism, Indigenous music was generally rejected. So when Robles announced his plan, everyone advised him to desist. That was just a crazy idea. Turning a deaf ear, Robles traveled all around Peru and compilated thousands of melodies. Had Robles not done that, a great amount of indigenous music would have disappeared. Under this influence, Robles attempted his first compositions, including “El Condor Pasa.”

El Condor Pasa was first performed in 1913, in a Zarzuela (musical) in Lima.

Afterwards, Robles moved to New York with his wife. They struggled. Robles didn’t care about learning English. While his wife worked very hard, he spent the day sitting by his piano. Eventually, his work was performed in a series of concerts in the NYU in 1930. The New York Times wrote that “Robles had a considerable talent” and his music was inspired by “indigenous tunes which were about 3000 years old.”

Paul Simon Visits Paris

El Condor PasaImage Source: Del Campe

From the 1930’s, the popularity of “El Condor Pasa” spread. Smaller bands and performers played different versions of it. During the 1960’s, an interesting phenomenon emerged. Underground musicians began to blend various types of music. Contemporary jazz and blue rhythms were mixed with tribal sounds. A songwriter named Paul Simon was fascinated by this “fusion”.

In 1965, during a music festival in Paris, Simon listened to an interpretation of “El Condor Pasa” by the group “Los Incas”. Simon became infatuated with it. He said: “I love this melody! I’m going to write lyrics to it. I just love it, and we’ll just sing it right over the track!” Finally, in 1970, Simon released his version and retitled it “If I Could”. The song became an instant hit in the US and the UK.

I love this melody! I’m going to write lyrics to it. I just love it, and we’ll just sing it right over the track!”- Paul Simon after hearing “El Condor Pasa”

The massive reach of both UK and US media made “El Condor Pasa” a global success. Simon was one of the first who introduced non-western tunes into worldwide audiences, thus breaking the racial and cultural barriers in music. Simon is undoubtedly indebted to Peruvian Daniel Alomia Robles.

If I couldImage Source: CD and LP

Music, a pure form of expression, unites all human beings. Today, musicians all over the planet perform “El Condor Pasa”, from the Czech Republic to Israel, France, Italy, Argentina, etc. Overall, more than 4000 versions of the song have been released.

And it only took a “crazy” Peruvian guy to embrace a beautiful music that everyone despised.

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El Condor Pasa - Paul Simon & Garfunkel

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