A Country of Music and Poetry

The View from Paraguay

By Lizza Bogado

Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa popularized Paraguayan music. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.


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As a Paraguayan singer and composer, I had the privilege of performing once with Mercedes Sosa in Asunción.  When I visited her at a later date in Buenos Aires, she confided that the first songs she had ever recorded in Argentina were Paraguayan, and she gave me the original recordings of this music, which I shall always treasure as a memento of our long conversation that day.  

Sosa, an Argentine, was linked to Paraguayan music. Paraguayan singer Luis Alberto del Paraná first connected her with the Dutch recording firm Phillips, allowing her now famous voice to reach the world. She told me that she had never forgotten that. Paraguay is a musical country, so it’s not strange that singers like Paraná and his group “Los Paraguayos” conquered the European musical market in the 1960s and have been recognized alongside the Beatles by Queen Elizabeth and the general public in London’s Albert Hall. 

The two best-known musical and folkloric genres in Paraguay are the polka with its very lively rhythm, based on a European beat, and the more recent guarania, with a slower cadence, clearly reflecting the Paraguayan character—sometimes wrapped up in a deep sadness or melancholy. In 1925, José Asunción Flores created the guarania, and Demetrio Ortiz immortalized the rhythm from exile with his iconic song “Recuerdos de Ypacarai” (Memories of Ypacarai), while Argentine composer Zulema de Mirkin wrote the words of the song without ever having seen the lake to which it refers.  The 1947 Civil War sent a generation of talented poets and musicians into exile, for the most part to Buenos Aires, including Flores and Mirkin. 

The verses of guarania songs generally involve love and breakups, hometowns, landscapes and feelings about the country expressed through melancholic singing. For many years, serenades were the customary way of conveying the state of one’s heart, but with increased urbanization, the serenade is becoming less popular. Still, it’s impossible to think of any party without the Paraguayan music that defines who we are and how we are. 

A COUNTRY AND ITS MUSIC

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Paraguay is its music. The 36-string  harp provides a resonance and register that give a unique sound to the country’s musical groups. The harp arrived with Catholic missionaries, probably of Celtic origin, but indigenous craftspeople adopted the harp—an instrument also used in other countries such as Mexico, Venezuela or Colombia—and gave it a very particular sound that is now exported throughout the world.

Music is not only tied to the country’s intrinsic spirit, but also to its two international wars. The first was known as the Great War or the War of Paraguay, a name that was given to it by the members of the Triple Alliance (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) in 1870, and the Chaco War against Bolivia in 1932-35. Several songs with a clearly patriotic stripe make up the repertoire of all the groups and singers who sing about national themes. These songs recount battles lost or won and brave soldiers—songs created to raise the spirits of Paraguayan soldiers as they go into battle. In the 2011 Bicentennial of Independence, the country immersed itself in the songs and poems that recounted the rich history of Paraguay. It was a singular moment in our history that showed how music defines us as a people and as a nation. 

Paraguayan tunes such as “Mis noches sin ti,” “Lejanía,” “Pájaro campana,” “Galopera,” “Cascada” and  “Reservista Purahei” (copied by the celebrated Armenian-French singer Charles Aznavour in his song “La mamma”) form part of Paraguay’s classic repertoire, and folklore groups both in the country and in other Latin American countries frequently perform them.  

More recently, both poets and musicians searched for new themes that make reference to the past. Among them are several notable efforts that have described the problems of social inequity and great injustices in land distribution or in equal opportunity. These groups emerged in response to the long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) as part of the “Nuevo Cancionero” (New Songbook) movement, giving rise to such songs as “Despertar” (Awakening), made popular by Mercedes Sosa. Rebellious, outspoken poetry has a long tradition in the country and many of its great voices—Elvio Romero, Teodoro S. Mongelós and Herib Campos Cervera— did much of their work in exile. Recognizing the power of song, the dictatorship persecuted these Paraguayan cultural expressions. 

Themes dedicated to the courtship of women also abound: listen, for example, to (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srJRYW8DRKs). One hymn of love is “Nde resa kuarahyame” by Teodoro S. Mongelos that says in its third stanza:

Ajuhu mba´e iporãva che py´a guive 
ahayhúva
yvypórape omoïva jeguakáramo Tupã
ysyry rendaguemícha hovyü 
ha ipyko´ëva
vevuimínte ahëtuséva nde resa
kuarahy´ã.
Reikuaáma aarohoryva reikuaáma 
mamoitépa
sapy´a amanoha ára ikatúne che ñoty
che rejántekena Mirna nde resa 
kuarahy´ãme
tosyry jepi anga che ári tapia 
nde resay.

Translated to Spanish:

He encontrado la hermosura
que entrañablemente quiero,
la que de ornamento puso
Dios en la faz de la tierra.

Como un cauce de arroyuelo
de cóncavo azul oscuro
suavemente besaría
esa sombra de tus ojos.

(I have found the beauty that I so desperately desire, that God put as an ornament on the face of the earth/ like the dark blue stream of a little brook, I would softly kiss the shadow of your eyes.)

Paraguay is a beautiful but harsh country that softens only through song. Its painful history seeps out in verses in Guarani and in Spanish that form part of the guarania movement like “India” or “Nde rendape ayu”… in it we recognize what we were, what we are and what we want to be.

Lizza Bogado is a Paraguayan folklore singer who has made more than fifteen records. She has performed widely in theatres, television and large concert venues in Paraguay and throughout the world. She is the composer of well-known songs in her native country such as “Un solo canto,” “Herencia” and “Paraguay mi nación guaraní.”