El Condor Pasa is a melody you hear everywhere in Peru – in stores and restaurants, on the streets…and (somewhat maddeningly) on a loop at breakfast at a campsite. Here, it is being performed by a street merchant on one of the toy panpipes he sells.
It’s strange how travel fills in gaps in our knowledge – not just on the Big Things like geopolitics and history, but on tiny bits of popular culture. Like everyone else in the world, I could sing along to the verses that Paul Simon wrote for this traditional melody. But for some strange reason, I never knew all the lyrics to the chorus. It took a trip to Peru to take note of them:
Away, I’d rather sail away
Like a swan, that’s here and gone
A man gets tied up to the ground
He gives the world
It’s saddest sound
It’s saddest sound
Well, I’ll be. As a child, I often felt a profound sense of sadness when I looked at facades of homes as we drove past in the car. I somehow felt that the people behind the facades were leading lives of quiet desperation. I never understood it or even tried to articulate it to anyone until I was much older. (Turns out, the feeling was strongest in economically depressed areas.) My sister, on the other hand, loved looking at houses and would point out the details that she found aesthetically pleasing. Her associations were all positive. Fast forward 40 years and she is living in a huge home that she’s lovingly decorated, and I am technically homeless. But I have sailed away, like the swan – with my little baby swan (i.e. my cygnet, but that doesn’t sound as sweet). And I am, dare I say it, happy – at moments, exceedingly so.
Why did Paul Simon include a swan instead of a condor in his lyrics? As a broad-winged soaring bird, the condor is a stronger symbol of freedom. Perhaps he got stuck on the rhyme scheme (“Like a condor that’s meant to wander/ponder/maunder?” Nooooooo.) He appears to have also inverted the meaning of the song, because El Condor Pasa was apparently originally a Peruvian homecoming song. Interestingly, though, the feeling of yearning that it evokes conveys homesickness as well as it does Fernweh (away-sickness).