The Story Behind El Cóndor Pasa – from Peruvian Folk Song to Global Hit

A male Andean condor in flight
A male Andean condor in flight | ©Colegota / Wikipedia
Photo of Manuel Orbegozo
12 July 2017

More than fifty years before ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ came to occupy the top music rankings worldwide under the name of ‘If I Could’ by Simon and Garfunkel, Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles, its true author, crossed the Andes in search of autochthonous music and traditions. When he returned to Lima in the early 1900s, Alomía Robles allegedly became fire captain, but the Andean music he had heard during his trips – plus his previous experience as a music composer – inspired him to create a new melody that has gone on to have quite an impact in the world of music.

The Original Composition

The indigenous movements of the time influenced Alomía Robles during his composition of a zarzuela (Spanish operetta), written exclusively to be played by an orchestra without Andean instruments; he called it ‘El Cóndor Pasa. That year, a play written by Peruvian playwright Julio de la Paz was added to the composition and was performed for first time at the Mazzi Theatre in Lima. In 1933, Alomia Robles sold his rights to ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ to the Edward B. Marks Music Corporation.

Soon it was performed in large theatres around the world, sung by renowned opera singers of the time like Yma Sumac, the first Peruvian artist to reach Hollywood. Today there are more than 4,000 versions of ‘El Cóndor Pasa’, with artists such as Placido Domingo, Celia Cruz, Gigliola Cinquetti, Julie Felix, and Marc Anthony among those who have made it their own via cover versions performed in concert.

Despite being an operetta divided into eight musical pieces, only three parts of the composition became popular. The most well-known of the three – referred to as, you guessed it, ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ – is divided into four parts: a yaraví (a sad and slow melody), a passacaglia and a happy huayno at the end. 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. It is also recognised as a Cultural Heritage of Peru, for ‘containing original concepts of music that serve to strengthen our cultural identity’, according to the official Peruvian government newspaper El Peruano.

Simon & Garfunkel’s version

During the 1960s, Andean bands became very popular in Europe. One of these groups was called Los Incas. They performed their own version of ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ with Andean instruments. After Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel saw them perform the song live in Paris, he learned the melody and added his own lyrics to it. Under the name of ‘If I Could, this version by the American folk band became the most popular song across Europe at the time, notably in countries such as Spain, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, Paul Simon didn’t know the copyrights to the song didn’t actually belong to a member of the Incas, who himself thought that ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ was a popular Andean composition of the 1800s. After a copyright lawsuit between the son of Alomía Robles and Simon, the undisputed authorship of the Peruvian composer was reestablished. One hundred years after it was written, ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ is now in the public domain.

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