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Post Guatemala's "Second National Anthem": Luna de Xelaju (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 11/20/23 3:15 AM

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Guatemala's "Second National Anthem": Luna de Xelaju (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 11/20/23 3:15 am)

Gary Moore writes:

The haunting "second national anthem" of Guatemala, the song "Luna de Xelajú," has led me to a video, whose exquisite impact seems to call out to WAIS.

The video's production team under Diego Contreras (I've got no promotional connection with these people) has managed to bring the original 1944 song, and its intricacies, into a startling depth and majesty, by use of understatement and simplicity, against a very spare backdrop. I'm writing now because I've found that this obscure video produces a purity of effect (at least in one mind) that had me digging for words to describe it--and thus into widening ripples of insight, such as:

"The Sublime:  moments of mute encounter with all that exceeds our comprehension"

--Simon Morley, MIT

The two Guatemalan vocalists/guitarists showcased in the video, Gaby Moreno and Óscar Isaac, are stunningly talented in themselves, and the production weaves around them a quiet, unexpected grandeur. I have long wanted to learn to sing this vocal emblem of Guatemala, but keep finding that the subtle twists that make the melody haunting go beyond usual melodic combinations.

And this leads back to songwriter Paco Pérez, of Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango ("Xelajú"/Shay-la-HOO) is the oft-used original Mayan name for the city of Quetzaltenango, whose formal name was imposed by Nahuatl translators arriving with the Spanish--tenanco: walled city; quetzal: the iconic Guatemalan bird). In a 1936-1944 gestation, Paco Pérez, steeped in the soft sounds of the Mayan marimba, evoked otherwise indescribable layers of subtle experience by weaving into his song melodic touches from his own era, hints of Argentine tango, a fleeting suggestion of "En Mi Viejo San Juan" (the iconic song of Puerto Rico), and even a phrase which, very faintly, grows martial and climactic--as if to foreshadow a moment seven years later, in 1951, when a Guatemalan Air Force C-47 cargo plane, carrying Pérez and other entertainers back from a remote army concert, crashed in the deep jungles of the Peten. By then Guatemala so loved the song, and so mourned the loss of Pérez and many other talents in the crash, that the day of his death, October 27, became the Día del Artista Nacional.

Again this circles back for me, because within less than fifty kilometers of that crash were the future jungle sites of what in a later generation would be a ground of almost inconceivable massacres, sublime in the worst sense, including El Arbolito and, still larger, Dos Erres--massacres that drew me in investigation.

I wonder how the bygone vocal shifts of Luna de Xelajú might sound to WAIS today. Do they edge toward seeming mannered and a bit contrived? Has the production magic of the modern video successfully found and amplified the sublime in what was originally only a time-confined yearning toward it? Or is it perhaps only in my own ear, for ineffable reasons of my own journey, that this deeper magnificence seems so clear?

Luna de Xelajú, sung by Gaby Moreno and Oscar Isaac, 2023:


JE comments:  Gary, I've missed you!  It's great to welcome you back with this masterful performance, presented in a stunningly sparse video.  Nothing but the singers, their guitars, and an otherwise empty stage. As for the "vocal shifts" you describe, I believe you mean the transition from the minor to the major mode about halfway through.  Does this suggest hope?  Perhaps.  I wish I had a more sophisticated palette for analyzing music.

Gary, best Thanksgiving wishes and please:  write us more often!

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  • "Luna de Xelaju" and "Every Time We Say Goodbye" (Patrick Mears, -Germany 11/20/23 10:26 AM)
    I second John E's hearty and sincere welcome back to Gary Moore. I have missed his wise, clever and fun posts.

    "Luna de Xelajú" is a beautiful song and a brilliant video that Gary has served up to WAISdom. Thank you very much for that kindness.

    John E's comment immediately brought to mind the Cole Porter classic, "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and these lyrics therein:

    "When you′re near, there's such an air of spring about it

    I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it

    There′s no love song finer

    But how strange the change from major to minor

    Every time we say goodbye."


    JE comments: Music criticism is not my bailiwick, so I'll just make some loose observations.  Pat Mears has forwarded another song written during WWII.  (Gary Moore's entry, "Luna de Xelajú," is from 1944.)  Why did so many excellent tunes emerge during the conflict?  Much of the canon of popular Christmas songs came out during the war. "Every Time We Say Goodbye" certainly had deep meaning for wartime listeners.

    Another curiosity cropped up:  are humans "hard-wired" to associate the minor mode with sadness?  Apparently not (I looked it up):  it's culture-specific.  Some cultures create happy songs in minor keys.

    And Pat, will your Heidelberg home hold a Thanksgiving celebration, or will you be joining most Germans and treating the 23rd as a normal day?  Either way, a joyful TG to you and Connie.

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    • Reflections on German Music, Serbian Apologists (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 11/22/23 4:41 AM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      Many thanks to Patrick Mears for his kind words on my post about the Guatemalan song "Luna de Xelajú."

      Both Patrick and John E responded with rich questions about music, emotion, and culture (e.g., Why do minor chords sound sad to Europeanized cultures, but not to some others?), which I hope will bring instructive discussion from those blessed with more musical knowledge than me.

      Patrick, in Austria I was surprised to find new friends scoffing that they didn't much like their own rich tradition in music of the German language, but preferred American or Americanized pop. Is this a traumatized reaction to authoritarianism in the past? (Or if you like, any other musing on Germany or elsewhere.)

      But oops, now Kosovo. If we are not to use eloquent words like "rubbish," may I then heartily second Istvan Simon with less effective prose: Romanticized pro-Serbian apologia on Kosovo, steeped inadvertently in the Kosovski ciklus (about which the apologist typically knows nothing), are like the post-Confederate outpourings that exalted Dixie's Lost Cause--packed full of triumphant factoids (and fiction-oids) that surely seem to win the point, though unburdened by objective inquiry at the scene. Or perhaps like the avalanche of geological factoids coming from Creationists proving a 4,000-year-old earth.

      Is this replacement enough for the impolitic word?

      JE comments:  The Germans and Austrians have nothing to be ashamed of, musically speaking.  A trio of "B" composers should put their minds at ease.  Or how about Mozart?  For Austrians who of recent times, consider Falco and his pounding 1980s anthem, "Der Kommisar."  I proudly say, Rock me, Amadeus.

      Gary Moore's comparison of the Serbian and Confederate Lost Causes gets me thinking.  I clearly see the "lost" part, but the Serbs were never secessionists, quite the opposite. Is it intrinsically romantic to sympathize with war's losing side?  Must reflect more on this.

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