In September I went to a concert in Santiago where the Chilean folklore group Illapu played my favorite song, “Lejos del amor.” When I told people about the concert, I also wanted to explain the Spanish lyrics. The only real obstacle was that I didn’t understand them. I could pick out a few phrases from the song—lejos del amor (far from love), lejos del hogar (far from home), qué hacen aquí (what are you doing here?)—but not much more. Given my distance from home, something about the parts I did understand resonated with me. That, and the sound hooked me.
Not content with ignorance, I looked up the lyrics. I was doing quite well translating them until word five, which I didn’t know. Gaviotas. I looked up the word in a couple of cheap dictionaries without luck until I finally found the meaning: seagulls. I had the sinking feeling that I didn’t really have any idea what my favorite Chilean folklore song was about, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to like it as much once I knew what it meant.
This has happened enough to me, and probably you too: you like a song, but you don’t really know what it’s about. Sometimes when you find out, it’s shocking. A friend of mine once brought a disc of Spanish pop music home after studying abroad. The catchy lyrics from a particular song got stuck in her father’s head. He went around singing them to himself, unaware for a time that the translation went something like this: “Pimp daddy. Pimp daddy. Pimp daddy daddy daddy daddy.” In his defense, the song did have a very catchy beat.
The misunderstanding doesn’t have to occur across a language barrier. Even in your native language, it’s hard to understand what singers are saying. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that as a child, I thought Elvis Prestly’s “I’m all shook up,” was about a man named Amon Shucook. Or that I thought the refrain to OMC’s “How bizarre” was the admittedly ungrammatical “how was I?” Or that I heard “the animals” in Savage Garden’s “The Animal Song,” alternately as “the cannibals” and “the cannonballs.” Or that I still do not understand “O to the izza, for shizzle my nizzle you should dribble down to VA,” in Jay-Z’s “HOVA,” though I maintain that it is a great song.
Some people play it safe and assume the worst, which explains the controversy surrounding The Kingsmen’s nearly incomprehensible hit “Louie Louie” in 1963. Radio stations refused to play the song, people boycotted the band, and the FBI began a 31-month investigation into the insidious lyrics. I’m not sure exactly why somebody didn’t just ask the band what the song said, nor why it took the FBI three years to resolve the matter. For the non-conspiracy theorists among you, the song is about a man in a bar telling the bartender about a girl he met.
Returning to my seagulls in Illapu’s “Lejos del amor,” my first reaction was denial: This song that I love is not about seagulls. Ridiculous. Chileans are famous for their slang, so I was convinced that the word had another meaning. I asked Marcelo, the next Chilean that I ran into, what the word meant. He didn’t know the translation in English, but he was kind enough to draw me the following picture:
So seagulls. Besides destroying my hope, Marcelo also launched into an explanation of the song. Seagulls, normally found near the ocean, arrived at the Mapocho River in Santiago in the early 1990s. Perhaps some researcher understands why the seagulls are there, but what most Santiaginos understand is that now there are an awful lot of seagulls in the Mapocho. Though I was loath to admit it, this made perfect sense in the context of the song’s first verse: “What are these seagulls doing here so far from the sea? / What are they doing here among the stones and bends in this brown river? / What are they doing here so far from the sea?”
The next obvious question is, well, obvious: why seagulls?
In 1981, Illapu finished a worldwide tour. On the way home, the band members were informed that they were no longer permitted to enter Chile. Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile at the time, exercised tight control over the country. His regime branded Illapu as, “Marxist activists participating in a campaign of contempt of Chile abroad.” The members of Illapu were exiled. They went to France where they lived and recorded for the next seven years. When the political climate in Chile had improved, in 1988, Illapu was allowed to return to Chile.
Time is a funny thing. Clocks tick so mechanically, second after second, that one might be fooled into thinking that there is something regular about it. Experience tells the real story, where time is a fluid quantity in our minds. Minutes seem like hours, days seem like months. Or conversely, years seem like no time at all. Mostly it depends on perspective. As years away from their homes, years apart from friends and loved ones, and years of powerlessness to return, the seven years for Illapu’s musicians must have been long ones.
After Illapu’s experience with exile, the seagulls’ arrival in the Mapocho River was an opportune event for poetry’s sake. The song “Lejos del amor” expresses sympathy for the birds. They are lost souls, lifeless suns, far from their loves and hopes. It also has a certain sense of confusion. Being far away is difficult, so why are these creatures doing it? What reason could they have for being here? Seagulls are upwardly mobile; why not go home? On the other hand, getting kicked out of your country gives one a certain skewed perspective on what it is like to be away. There are some good reasons for leaving home behind; perhaps the seagulls have theirs.
For my part, I have forgiven the seagulls their intrusion into my song. In fact I rather like it. I think we would understand each other. Contrary to Illapu’s suggestion, not all who are far from home are far from love. Not all who leave are crazy. Not all, as Tolkien wrote, who wander are lost.