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Kuntur, Culture and El Cóndor Pasa (English)

The 1970 song ‘If I could’ by Simon and Garfunkel is found on their award-winning album ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, which globally popularized an Indigenous Andean melody which has thousands of versions now circulating around the world. They first encountered this melody in 1965 while in Paris, hearing it performed by an Argentine led music troupe who at that time called themselves Los Incas (1). It is Los Incas version of the song ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ that you hear on the track ‘If I could’. ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ literally translates from Spanish to ‘The Condor Passes’, but is perhaps better interpreted as ‘The Flight of the Condor’. This melody of El Cóndor Pasa was given its name by the Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles who today claims ‘official ownership’ for the song based on his orchestral composition that first premiered in 1913. This arrangement was later copyrighted by him as piano sheet music in the United States in 1933. This version of the song was part of a zarzuela (Spanish theatrical opera) whose script was written by Julio de La Paz (Julio Baudouin) and carried political meanings of protest telling a story of power struggle. A struggle of Indigenous people in their now occupied ancestral territories who were working in mines, facing the local environmental destruction caused by mining along with impoverished conditions. The social context the play draws from reveals oppressive power relations from foreign based US owners of the mines, which build off of previous foreign exploitation by Spain. The folklorist Valdimar Tr. Hafstein wrote in his book ‘Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from Unesco’ that, “The condor soaring above stands for the freedom the miners fight for and for Incan pride in the face of foreign exploitation” (2). Yet, while it was a revolutionary zarzuela, the attending audiences were not generally from the Indigenous communities it was about, but instead a more dominant or mainstream European descended or mestizo (mixed race) population, resulting in a variety of complex outcomes. For example, a new nationalist project and movement that overlooked colonial structures that produced the conditions that required Indigenous protest in the first place (3).

Kuntur is the Quechua and Aymara name for Condor and the word from which Condor or Cóndor in both English and Spanish is derived from. Kuntur has long held spiritual significance in Cosmovisíon Andina (Indigenous Andean cosmic worldviews) because this massive bird lives on high cliff sides and can glide for miles without needing to flap its wings while up in the sky (4). The Condor connects the realm of the heavens where light from the stars and the sun come from, the domain of the rains, clouds, and lightning. This world in the sky is known as Hanan Pacha in the Quechua language. Kuntur lives in connection to both Hanan Pacha and to the realm we live in as human beings, Kay Pacha, which is the temporal world on the surface of the earth. For these and other reasons, Kuntur is an important and powerful messenger and symbol. Kuntur remains powerfully symbolic across the Andes for many peoples and modern nation-states. The song ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ originally named as such by Robles drew from Kuntur symbolism in the region to protest oppressive political and economic systems and is a song tied to liberation struggles in the context that the zarzuela was composed in. However, the symbol of the Condor was also later tragically reconfigured and the word appropriated by oppressive political regimes and projects such as ‘Operation Condor’, which was an inter-multi-national network of violent repression and state-based terror. From liberation struggles to oppressive regimes, and between modern nation-states, the Condor is both claimed and contested. The song ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ likewise carries many meanings, audiences, and contexts, from Simon and Garfunkel’s folk-rock to Back in Time’s disco adaptation to Wayna Picchu’s reclamation of the tune with Quechua lyrics. Ultimately, the melody is bigger and older than any modern nation-state or official copyright or global popularity. Robles was a scholar and researcher of music as much as he was a composer and he had spent time with Indigenous communities recording their sound and music as well as re-producing them in new ways (5). His version of ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ is an orchestral re-arrangement of a Huayno/Waynu, which is an Indigenous musical genre with a unique rhythm and sound from the Andes played with drums and antara/siku (Quechua/Aymara for panpipes/panflute). The tune known in Spanish as ‘Soy la Paloma Que el Nido Perdío’, which in English translates to ‘I am the dove that the nest has lost’, is quite possibly the most original tune that was renamed ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ and where it drew its musical inspiration from. A Waynu version of this tune collected by Casa de la Cultra in Lima, Peru was even sent to space by NASA on the Voyager record, where this Indigenous Andean sound now travels the cosmos. The next time you hear this tune, be it through global popular music or from one of the many contemporary arrangements circulating today, I hope you will remember Kuntur, and the Indigenous origins and meanings connected to the high Andean mountains that produced this sound.

By: Arcia Tecun



(1) Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, ‘Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from Unesco’, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018; Valdimar Tr. Hafstein and Áslaug Einarsdóttir, ‘The Flight of the Condor’, documentary film, 2018.

(2) Hafstein, ‘Making Intangible Heritage’, p. 35.

(3) Hafstein, ‘Making Intangible Heritage’; Rivera Cusicanqui, ‘Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(1): 95-109, 2012; Rivera Cusicanqui, ‘”Oprimidos pero no vencidos”: Luchas del Campesinado Aymara y Qhechwa 1900-1980’, La Paz: La Mirada Salvaje, 4th Edition 2010.

(4) Andrés Jacques-Coper, Guillermo Cubillos and José Tomás Ibarra, ‘The Andean Condor as bird, authority, and devil:an empirical assessment of the biocultural keystone species concept in the high Andes of Chile’, Ecology and Society, 24(2), 2019; Elaine Azzopardi et. Al., ‘What are heritage values? Integrating natural and cultural heritage into environmental valuation’, People and Nature, 5(2): 368-383, 2023; Achig B. D. Ricardo, ‘Cosmovisíon Andina: categorías y principios’, Universidad de Cuenca, 37(3), 2019; Miguel Cruz, ‘Cosmovisión Andina e Interculturidad: Una Mirada al Desarollo Sostenible Desde el Sumak Kawsay’, Revista Chakiñan, 5, 2018.

(5) Hafstein, ‘Making Intangible Heritage’; Hafstein and Einarsdottír, ‘The Flight of the Condor’.

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