03 May 2006

Why the Twists in Nuestro Knickers?

I've listened. I've read the lyrics and their English translation. I don't get it.

Bloggers -- even President Bush -- are all a-tizzy about the Spanish-language re-imagining of our national anthem by artists including Haitian-born Wyclef Jean, hip-hop star Pitbull, and Puerto Rican singers Carlos Ponce and Olga Tanon. It's all tied in with the immigration debate, of course, and recent protests, marches, and walkouts in solidarity with immigrants. SoundRoots weighed in recently on immigration. But we're still having trouble comprehending the venomous response to this song.

The argument over "Nuestro Himno" is partly an argument over what the national anthem is. It's a cultural artifact that also functions as a political statement: an oath. People who emphasize its cultural importance might hear the new version as an act of musical vandalism; for them, the song's importance lies in those specific words and that specific tune (even though the melody comes from a bawdy 18th-century English song). (New York Times)

Hmmm. I guess I'm just too open-minded to consider this musical vandalism, just as I'm so open minded that I think the US Constitution and Bill of Rights don't burst into flame if some protestor (or idiot) burns a US flag. But here, you have a listen:

Nuestro Himno (emergency backup link)

English translation:
It's sunrise. Do you see by the light of the dawn
What we proudly hailed last nightfall?
Its stars, its stripes yesterday streamed
above fierce combat a symbol of victory
the glory of battle, the march toward liberty.
Throughout the night, they proclaimed: "We will defend it!"

Tell me! Does its starry beauty still wave
above the land of the free, the sacred flag?

Its stars, its stripes, Liberty, we are the same.
We are brothers in our anthem. In fierce combat,
a symbol of victory the glory of battle,
(My people fight on) the march toward liberty.
(The time has come to break the chains.)
Throughout the night they proclaimed: "We will defend it!"

Tell me! Does its starry beauty still wave
above the land of the free, the sacred flag?
Nothing wrong with that. Oh sure, maybe the "sacred flag" thing could raise church-state issues. But that's not what I've heard whiners whining about. And sure the singing and arrangement are a more modern style, but I've heard similar (and worse) things done to "The Star Spangled Banner" at sporting events.

The song's 15 minutes of infamy seem to be passing already, which is a shame. Because this could be a great moment for reflection by Americans. Sure, our roots are in the American revolution. But that's not enough. Nations that obsess about their revolutionary origins (Cuba, USSR) don't move forward, or don't survive. Francis Scott Key's lovely, unsingable-by-average-people anthem is a relic. "Nuestro Himno" comes as a relief, and a welcome acknowledgement of the multicultural state of our nation. But it's not enough. The national anthem doesn't need a linguistic remodel, it needs replacing.

If there's a single compelling argument for a change in our national anthem, it's Ray Charles. Take a moment and listen to his version of "America the Beautiful." Right now.
Ray Charles: "America The Beautiful"

Now tell me that doesn't give you chills. I'm an American, proud of my country if not always my government. This song manages to celebrate the nation's founders, its natural beauty, heroes, patriots, cities, mountains, farms, skies, even fruit! -- all within a lovely melody. And, as Ray does it, with great soul.

Maybe it's time the USA changed its tune as a sign that we are also moving beyond an image of "bombs bursting in air" and rockets and other such things. We'll always need them, to be sure. But I'd rather sing about beauty.

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