El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could) original

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Is El Cóndor Pasa the If I Could original?

In 1913, Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles wrote an orchestral work titled “El Cóndor Pasa”. Thanks to American folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970 cover “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)”, Alomía Robles’ composition became the best-known Peruvian song in the English-speaking world. Although influenced by traditional Andean music, Alomía Robles created and composed the “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” original. However, it took a lawsuit to get his name listed as the song’s co-writer on the Simon & Garfunkel version.

Daniel Alomía Robles and his pioneering collection of Indigenous folk music

Alomía Robles was born in 1871 in Huánuco, central Peru. As a child, he enjoyed singing Indigenous Peruvian songs. As a young adult, Alomía Robles’ life continued to be full of music. Musical theatre was very popular in Lima, and many well-known musicians made their home in the city. In 1894, Alomía Robles quit his medical degree to dedicate his life to music.

Supported by his wife, Alomía Robles travelled throughout Peru, and parts of Ecuador and Bolivia, compiling Indigenous folk music and stories from the Amazon jungle and the Andes mountains. He was a pioneer in collecting music that may otherwise have disappeared. Alomía Robles compiled over 700 Peruvian songs and composed almost 240 of his own.

The El Cóndor Pasa zarzuela

In 1913, Alomía Robles composed a zarzuela named “El Cóndor Pasa”. (A zarzuela is a Spanish-language dramatic play that alternates between speech and song.) Influenced by the Indigenous movements of the time, “El Cóndor Pasa” had a strong social focus. Its plot centered about Peruvian miners and their interactions with a foreign mining company. A condor flying above the miners became their symbol of freedom.

Alomía Robles wrote “El Cóndor Pasa” to be performed by an orchestra rather than the Andean instruments that influenced his composition and were featured in later versions.

In 1933, Alomia Robles arranged for the Edward B Marks Music Corporation to legally register the “El Cóndor Pasa” piano arrangement in the US Library of Congress. This firmly establishes Alomia Robles’ composition as the “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” original.

The Teatro Mazzi in Lima hosted the first public performance of “El Cóndor Pasa”. That performance wasn’t recorded but you can hear an early recording of the piece here. This 1917 version is performed by La Orquesta del Zoológico, an orchestra who played at the Lima zoo. I’m not sure if it’s the sound distortion, but this performance sounds a lot faster than Simon & Garfunkel’s version. Despite its more orchestral focus, this performance of the the “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” original still conjures up images of the Andes.

“El Cóndor Pasa” has been performed in large theatres all around the world. Famous opera singers have performed it, including Yma Sumac, the first Peruvian artist to achieve fame in Hollywood.

Reconstruction of the original score

Musicologist and researcher Luis Salazar Mejía, in collaboration with musicologists Claude Ferrier and Daniel Dorival, reconstructed and recorded “El Cóndor Pasa” according to the original score. It was performed at the Teatro UNI in Lima to celebrate the 100th birthday of “El Cóndor Pasa”.

Today there are over 4000 versions of the “El Cóndor Pasa” melody and 300 sets of lyrics. In 2004, Peru declared the piece a part of the country’s national cultural heritage.

Paul Simon falls in love with El Cóndor Pasa

In the 1960s, Andean music became popular in Europe. One of the most well-known groups was Los Incas. In 1965, Paul Simon heard Los Incas play “El Cóndor Pasa” at the Théâtre de l’Est Parisien in Paris, during a concert in which both acts performed. Simon struck up a friendship with Los Incas. Later he would tour with them and produce their first US album. He loved hearing the band play “El Cóndor Pasa”.

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.”

Paul Simon

Simon asked Los Incas for permission to record “El Cóndor Pasa”. The band agreed, but Los Incas director and founding member, Jorge Milchberg, erroneously told Simon that the song was a tradition Peruvian folk song.

Simon & Garfunkel version

In 1970, Simon & Garfunkel covered the Los Incas version of “El Cóndor Pasa”. Their version featured English lyrics written by Simon. Los Incas performed on the song’s base track. Milchberg played the charango, an Andean string instrument made from armadillo shell. Other members of Los Incas played flutes and percussion, while Simon played acoustic guitar.

“El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” featured on Simon & Garfunkel’s fifth and final studio album, 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Copyright lawsuit

Later that year, Alomía Robles’ son Armando Robles Godoy, a Peruvian filmmaker, filed a successful copyright lawsuit against Simon. The grounds for the lawsuit were that “El Cóndor Pasa” was not a traditional folk song. It had been composed by Alomía Robles and he had copyrighted the song in the US in 1933. Robles Godoy held no ill will towards Simon for what he considered a “misunderstanding” and an “honest mistake”.

It was an almost friendly court case because Paul Simon was very respectful of other cultures. It was not carelessness on his part. He happened to hear the song in Paris from a vernacular group Los Incas. He liked it, he went to ask the band for permission and they gave him the wrong information. Jorge Milchberg told him it was a traditional folk song from the 18th century and not my father’s composition. It was a court case without further complications.”

Armando Robles Godoy

Following the court case, Alomía Robles, Milchberg and Paul Simon were all credited as the writers of “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)”.

International fame

The Simon & Garfunkel version reached number 18 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and number 69 on the Easy Listening chart. The song performed well around the world, particularly in Spain, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. Simon even performed “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

Other versions

Perry Como included a dreamy-voiced cover of “El Cóndor Pasa” on his 1970 album, It’s Impossible. British based, American-born folk singer Julie Felix took advantage of the fact that Simon & Garfunkel didn’t release a single in the UK. Her lovely, vibrant version of “El Cóndor Pasa“, also from 1970, became a top 20 UK hit. Robles Godoy wrote a Spanish language version, using Simon’s lyrics as reference.

“El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” is a beautiful song, which respects and shares Andean culture. The lyrics Simon wrote really enhanced the original version. However, it is Alomía Robles’ melody that makes this song so iconic and beloved.

You can read about other 70s songs and their unknown originals here. Read about other folk-rock tunes here.

Songfacts - El Condor Pasa (If I Could)
The Story Behind El Cóndor Pasa – from Peruvian Folk Song to Global Hit
Wikipedia - Daniel Alomia Robles
Wikipedia - El Condor Pasa
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