Peru's national anthem: a colossal bummer?


Members of the presidential guard parade outside the presidential palace in Lima on Aug. 26, 2010.


Cris Bouroncle




LIMA, Peru — Critics contend "The Star-Spangled Banner" is hard to sing, glorifies war and is set to the music of an English drinking song. But that’s nitpicking compared to the problems with Peru’s dirge-like national anthem which invokes slavery, humiliation and horror — all in the first stanza.

“For a long time, the oppressed Peruvian dragged the ominous chain,” the song starts out. “Condemned to cruel servitude, he quietly whimpered.”

With Peru riding a decade-long economic boom, there’s a move afoot to rewrite the anthem to render a more optimistic tribute to the nation. Leading the way is Julio Cesar Rivera, a retired government auditor who has spent 10 years and thousands of dollars researching and writing about the hymn.

Rivera, 69, says the anthem ought to be a patriotic homage to the fatherland. Instead, he says, it’s a colossal bummer that damages the national psyche and creates an inferiority complex.

“The words are not at all positive and it’s one of the factors affecting our national spirit,” Rivera said. “We need a song that unites us.”

As part of his crusade, Rivera has self-published two thick books about the national anthem. The song was commissioned in 1821 by independence hero General Jose de San Martin. It’s a mini-opera, long and dramatic but ultimately inspiring as freedom fighters rise up and seize independence from Spain.

Listen to the Peruvian national anthem:

But just as few Americans get to the last verse of the Star-Spangled Banner — who remembers: “O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand”? — few Peruvians sing all seven stanzas of their anthem. Thus, they never delve into the heroic parts of the song.

Rivera wants to scrap the lyrics and replace them with three new verses — set to the old music — that he has penned. Rivera’s lines make Peru sound like a South American utopia. “We live in happiness, with peace, equal rights and freedom,” goes the first line. Rivera has even cut a CD of his new anthem featuring the voice of Antonio Maldonado, a Peruvian classical tenor.

It’s not the first time Peru has tried to overhaul its anthem.

At the start of the 20th century, the government held a contest to come up with new verses to rid the song of its bellicose language toward Spain since the two nations were by then at peace. But the changes were never adopted.

In 1959, Peruvian singer-songwriter Chabuca Granda wrote a new first verse for the anthem but it was also ignored. Likewise, Rivera’s efforts have been rebuffed by traditionalists.

Lima political analyst Jose Luis Sardon calls the anthem’s bleak words appropriate given Peru’s often tragic history. It was here where Spanish conquistadors crushed the magnificent Incan Empire. The nation has lost or tied many of its wars, including the War of the Pacific in the late 1800s when the defeated Peruvians surrendered a huge patch of mineral-rich territory to Chile.

As a result, Sardon said, “For most of our history, Peruvians have been a very depressive people … . The war with Chile was especially traumatic.”

Newspaper columnist Sinesio Lopez, who has written about the anthem debate, said that before retooling the lyrics to reflect a more positive point of view, Peru itself must change.

Despite the economic bonanza — which is based on mining, tourism, agriculture exports and massive foreign investment — about 35 percent of Peruvians still live in poverty. Racism, especially against the country’s large and mostly poor Indigenous population, is rampant.

“For the underclass, nothing has changed,” Lopez said. “And that goes against this optimistic outlook.”

In 2009, the Peruvian government, with the military’s support, tweaked the national anthem. But instead of changing the lyrics, officials decreed that the sunnier sixth verse should be played or sung in place of the oppressive first verse.

Rivera prefers his own composition but he recently showed up on the first day of classes at a Lima high school to listen to a student choir sing the retooled version. With its references to the red-and-white Peruvian flag and the magnificent Andes Mountains, the new lines are more cheerful.

Jaime Becerra, the school’s music professor, said the original version was so depressing that it was hard to get students and teachers to sing the anthem. “But the new verse is a lot more forceful,” he said. “My goal is to get everyone singing the national anthem, as if they were singing in church.”