washingtonpost.com
An Anthem's Discordant Notes
Spanish Version of 'Star-Spangled Banner' Draws Strong Reactions

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

Oh say can you see -- a la luz de la aurora?

The national anthem that once endured the radical transformation administered by Jimi Hendrix's fuzzed and frantic Stratocaster now faces an artistic dare at least as extreme: translation into Spanish.

The new take is scheduled to hit the airwaves today. It's called "Nuestro Himno" -- "Our Anthem" -- and it was recorded over the past week by Latin pop stars including Ivy Queen, Gloria Trevi, Carlos Ponce, Tito "El Bambino," Olga Tañon and the group Aventura. Joining and singing in Spanish is Haitian American artist Wyclef Jean.

The different voices contribute lines the way 1985's "We Are the World" was put together by an ensemble of stars. The national anthem's familiar melody and structure are preserved, while the rhythms and instrumentation come straight out of Latin pop.

Can "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the republic for which it stands, survive? Outrage over what's being called "The Illegal Alien Anthem" is already building in the blogosphere and among conservative commentators.

Timed to debut the week Congress returned to debate immigration reform, with the country riven by the issue, "Nuestro Himno" is intended to be an anthem of solidarity for the movement that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to march peacefully for immigrant rights in Washington and cities across the country, says Adam Kidron, president of Urban Box Office, the New York-based entertainment company that launched the project.

"It's the one thing everybody has in common, the aspiration to have a relationship with the United States . . . and also to express gratitude and patriotism to the United States for providing the opportunity," says Kidron.

The song was being prepared for e-mailing as MP3 packages to scores of Latino radio stations and other media last night, and Kidron was calling for stations to play the song simultaneously at 7 Eastern time this evening.

However, the same advance buzz that drew singers to scramble for inclusion in the recording sessions this week in New York, Miami, Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has also spurred critics who say rendering the song in Spanish is a rejection of assimilation into the United States.

Even some movement supporters are puzzled by the use of Spanish.

"Even our Spanish media are saying, 'Why are we doing this, what are you trying to do?' " said Pedro Biaggi, the morning host with El Zol (99.1 FM), the most popular Hispanic radio station in the Washington area. "It's not for us to be going around singing the national anthem in Spanish. . . . We don't want to impose, we don't own the place. . . . We want to be accepted."

Still, Biaggi says he will play "Nuestro Himno" this morning if the song reaches the station in time. But he will talk about the language issue on the air and solicit listeners' views. He says he accepts the producers' explanation that the purpose is to spread the values of the anthem to a wider audience. He adds he will also play a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in English -- as he aired the Whitney Houston version earlier this week, when the controversy was beginning to brew.

In the Spanish version, the translation of the first stanza is relatively faithful to the spirit of the original, though Kidron says the producers wanted to avoid references to bombs and rockets. Instead, there is "fierce combat." The translation of the more obscure second stanza is almost a rewrite, with phrases such as "we are equal, we are brothers."

An alternate version to be released next month includes a rap in English that never occurred to Francis Scott Key:

Let's not start a war

With all these hard workers

They can't help where they were born

"Nuestro Himno" is as fraught with controversial cultural messages as the psychedelic "Banner" Hendrix delivered at the height of the Vietnam War.

Pressed on what he was trying to say with his Woodstock performance in 1969, Hendrix replied (according to biographer Charles Cross), "We're all Americans. . . . It was like 'Go America!' . . . We play it the way the air is in America today."

Now the national anthem is being remade again according to the way the air is in America, and the people behind "Nuestro Himno" say the message once more is: We're all Americans. It will be the lead track on an album about the immigrant experience called "Somos Americanos," due for release May 16. One dollar from each sale will go to immigrant rights groups, including the National Capital Immigration Coalition, which organized the march on the Mall on April 10.

But critics including columnist Michelle Malkin, who coined "The Illegal Alien Anthem" nickname, say the rendition crosses a line that Hendrix never stepped over with his instrumental version. Transforming the musical idiom of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is one thing, argue the skeptics, but translating the words sends the opposite message: We are not Americans.

"I'm really appalled. . . . We are not a bilingual nation," said George Taplin, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, part of a national countermovement that emphasizes border control and tougher enforcement, and objects to public funding for day-laborer sites. "When people are talking about becoming a part of this country, they should assimilate to the norm that's already here," Taplin said. "What we're talking about here is a sovereign nation with our ideals and our national identity, and that [anthem] is one of the icons of our nation's identity. I believe it should be in English as it was penned."

Yet, even in English, 61 percent of adults don't know all the words, a recent Harris poll found.

Appealing to such symbols of national identity to plug into their profound potency is how new movements compete for space within that identity. During the rally on the Mall, the immigrants and their supporters also waved thousands of American flags and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But they didn't translate the pledge into Spanish. They said it in English.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, the general coordinator of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, said there's not a contradiction. The pledge was printed phonetically for Spanish speakers, and many reciting the sounds may not have understood the meaning. Putting the anthem in Spanish is a way to relay the meaning to people who haven't learned English yet, Ruiz said.

"It's part of the process to learn English," not a rejection of English, he said.

While critics sketch a nightmare scenario of a Canada-like land with an anthem sung in two languages, immigrant rights advocates say they agree learning English is essential. Studies of immigrant families suggest the process is inevitable: Eighty-two percent to 90 percent of the children of immigrants prefer English.

"The first step to understanding something is to understand it in the language you understand, and then you can understand it in another language," said Leo Chavez, director of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California at Irvine. "What this song represents at this moment is a communal shout, that the dream of America, which is represented by the song, is their dream, too."

Since its origins as the melody to an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven," circa 1780, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has had a long, strange trip. Key wrote the poem after watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. It became the national anthem in 1931.

At least 389 versions have been recorded, according to Allmusic.com, a quick reference used by musicologists to get a sense of what's on the market. Now that Hendrix's "Banner" has mellowed into classic rock, it's hard to imagine that once some considered it disrespectful. The other recordings embrace a vast musical universe: from Duke Ellington to Dolly Parton to Tiny Tim. But musicologists cannot name another foreign-language version.

"America is a pluralistic society, but the anthem is a way that we can express our unity. If that's done in a different language, that doesn't seem to me personally to be a bad thing," said Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, which is leading a National Anthem Project to highlight the song and the school bands that play it in every style, from mariachi to steel drum.

"I assume the intent is one of making a statement about 'we are a part of this nation,' and those are wonderful sentiments and a noble intent," said Dan Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Benigno "Benny" Layton wonders. He's the leader of Los Hermanos Layton, a band of conjunto- and Tejano-style musicians in Elsa, Tex., 22 miles from Mexico. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he recorded a traditional conjunto version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was instrumental.

"I'm a second-generation American," Layton said. "I love my country, and I love my [Mexican musical] heritage, and I try to keep it alive. But some things are sacred that you don't do. And translating the national anthem is one of them."

Staff writer Richard Harrington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company