Making Peru's national anthem more upbeat

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(Photo: MapachitoMD)

By John Otis

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The Star-Spangled Banner may be hard to sing, but consider the anguish and despair that is Peru's national anthem. The first verse, the one that everyone sings, invokes slavery, humiliation and horror.

The lyrics include the lines, "For a long time, the oppressed Peruvian dragged the ominous chain. Condemned to cruel servitude, he quietly whimpered."

It's supposed to be a patriotic homage to the fatherland, but Julio Cesar Rivera, a retired government accountant, describes the anthem as a colossal bummer.

"The words are not at all positive," Rivera said, "and it's one of the factors that affect our national spirit."

With Peru riding a decade-long economic boom, Rivera thinks it's time to give the country a more upbeat musical tribute.

Rivera has spent the past 10 years, as well as thousands of dollars researching the national anthem, penned in 1821. He has self-published two thick books about the song's history. Like many South American anthems, he said, it resembles a mini-opera – long and dramatic but with a heroic finish.
Seven stanzas

But in public performances, no one sings all seven stanzas, so Peruvians never get to hear the more inspiring lyrics about rising up and seizing independence from Spain.

Rivera would like to scrap the lyrics and replace them with some of his own. He's penned three new verses, set to the old music, that speak of justice, liberty and the good things Peru has given to humanity. He's even cut a CD of his new anthem featuring a classical tenor.

But Rivera's crusade has met resistance.

"Most of the people don't want to change the lyrics of the anthem," said Jose Luis Sardon, a Lima analyst. He said the anthem seems appropriate given Peru's often tragic history. It was here where Spanish Conquistadors crushed the Incan Empire, and later, in the 19th century War of the Pacific, Peru lost a huge patch of mineral-rich territory to Chile.

"In most of our history, Peruvians have been very depressive people because we have lost all our wars, especially the war with Chile, which was quite traumatic for us," Sardon said.

Sinesio Lopez, a columnist in Lima, said before creating a more upbeat national anthem, Peru itself must change. He noted that despite the economic bonanza of the past decade, more than a third of Peruvians still survive on $2, or less, a day.

"For poor people, nothing has changed and that goes against this optimistic outlook," Lopez said.
A tweak

The Peruvian government did tweak the national anthem in 2009. Instead of changing the lyrics, officials decreed that the sunnier sixth verse should be sung in place of the oppressive first verse.

Rivera took me to a Lima high school where students sing the updated anthem on the first day of classes.

With its references to the flag and the Andes Mountains, the new lines are more cheerful. But Rivera can't stop lobbying for his own lyrics. Rivera took up the issue with the high school music teacher, and just before leaving, he pressed a CD of his new and improved national anthem into the teacher's hands.

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