originally published October 3, 2012
History has shown – and by ‘history’ I mean my arbitrary interpretation of history for the purpose of having an introductory sentence that sounds like I actually did research – that the most poignant and important music has come from the urban centers. Folk dances and country music may pocket that rural groove, but to look at a people’s history, you look to the streets. To Bob Dylan on the countered pavement of the East Village. To Tupac in the shadowy streets of Oakland. To the Archies in the gritty alleys of Riverdale.
Well, the mean streets of Asunción have their own hero: José Asunción Flores.
When you picture in your head what an impoverished, shoe-shining boy in Paraguay in the early 20th century looks like, you probably… wow, come to think of it, I can’t even fathom such an image. To be honest, I had to look up specifically where Paraguay is.
Okay, well I got the continent right. Anyway, Flores really did shine shoes as a kid. He also delivered papers; Paraguayans didn’t have to wait until the 1930s to fall on hard times like us Northies. He was born in 1904 and had a rough childhood. When Flores wanted to escape with some music, all he heard was polkas.
Freakin’ polkas. By age 18, Flores had decided he wanted to be a songwriter. He’d played in marching bands, and discovered he had a knack for it. But enough with the damn polkas already; Flores was like the Frank Zappa of his time, except in Paraguay. The point is, he wanted to hear something new, something fresh. So he made it up.
He took a classic Paraguayan tune, “Maerãpa Reikuaase,” and started playing around with it, rearranging it, trying to interpret it in a wholly original way. Unlike my own attempts to convert “MacArthur Park” into a trip-hop-metal anthem, José Flores met with success.
He not only met with success, but success took him out for drinks, got him drunk, took him home, then covered him in arcing ropes of public esteem and appreciation, for Flores had uncovered an entirely new genre of music, one which spoke for the Paraguayan people to the Paraguayan people.
He had just invented Guarania.
Now, to be honest, I have no idea what traditional Paraguayan polka music was all about. Maybe they sung about lemon trees and aardvarks, maybe they praised the clouds or something. But neither the music nor the lyrics really reflected the Paraguayan experience. Flores aimed to change that. His new style of music was swiftly accepted as the People’s Tuneage.
Alright, I made that title up, but you get the point.
The core instrument in Guarania is the Paraguayan harp, which looks something like this:
The harp creates the percussion, along with the guiding melody of the music. The phrasing fits neatly into the rhythm; Guarania is not overtly lush and muddled. The outlying areas in Paraguay clung to their polkas, but in the city streets, Flores was king and his music was the soundtrack to… well, to whatever significant socio-political events happened in Paraguay in the 1920s. I honestly don’t know.
There are a number of samples to dip into on Youtube. I started here, then popped around from video to video for a while. This is beautiful stuff. It made me wish I was chilling on the streets of Asunción (I assume there are streets there), drinking coffee (or whatever the local beverage might be) and sitting under the cool shade of a banyan tree (I really need to do some more research on this place).
In 1928 Flores hooked up with the poet Manuel Ortiz Guerrero, who became the Taupin to his Elton-ness, and the two of them began a lengthy and fruitful collaboration. By the end of the decade, Flores was a big deal.
Then, in 1932, war broke out. Yes, the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia.
Flores enlisted and set off to fight. When was the last time a musician enlisted in the armed forces to defend their nation in this part of the world? Yeah, I’m looking at you, Toby Keith.
Anyway, the political climate in Paraguay after the war was an utter mess. Flores opted to settle in Buenos Aires to continue his music icon-hood. Guarania remained at the top of whatever passed for charts in Paraguay back then, and Flores’ legacy in his homeland was further cemented. His country had just lost a war, but his was a voice of national pride and cultural identity.
In 1944, Flores’ and Guerrero’s song “India”, which I linked to above but will happily link to again, was declared by the Paraguayan government to be a national song. In 1949, the government opted to award Flores the National Order of Merit for his massive contributions to Paraguayan culture. Flores accepted, and lived happily ever after.
If only the ending could be so joyous. No, Flores was particularly pissed off over a recent news event – it seems a student named Mariano Roque Alonso had been protesting the government and was killed in the process. In an act of defiance over this bloodshed, Flores opted to refuse the honor the government wished to give him.
Now, when John Lennon returned his MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1969 in protest of England’s support of America’s role in the Vietnam War, the only result was that a bunch of old snooty Brits crinkled their nose and muttered something about how he never deserved it in the first place. When Flores turned down this particular honor, the official government response was, “Okay then, he’s a traitor. Fuck that guy.”
When Alfredo Stroessner became president of Paraguay a few years later, he announced that Flores was forbidden to return to Paraguay ever. His music was banned, though still found its way onto local radio stations. Flores had gone from national treasure to underground bad-ass recording artist.
In early 1972, Flores’ health was failing. He submitted a request to return to Paraguay one last time to see his home before the great snooze-less alarm clock in the sky came a-soundin’. Despite over two decades having passed since Flores refused that little medal (or possibly plaque… maybe a trophy delivered by a live ferret in a little suit?), President Stroessner said no.
Flores died in Buenos Aires in May of 1972. It took until Stroessner was ousted, until 1991 before Flores’ remains were brought back to Asunción and placed in a plaza, which may or may not be this one:
Most of the photos in this Google search appear to have captions in Spanish. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I can only do so much research with a one-day turnaround. Luckily, what little research I did has made me a fan of Flores’ music.