La Paloma History | German

La Paloma: no other piece of music has ever been interpreted, arranged, printed or played as often as La Paloma. And the number of recorded versions can only be guessed, we know of a little more then 2000 different ones, but the total amount presumabely would be at least twice as much.
It might be difficult to find a person in the western hemisphere, who would not recognise this notorious melody, but even in places like Japan, India or China La Paloma represents something like a (rather concealed) worldwide musical common denominator.
     Although sung as often as no other song, La Paloma lived a life of strange obscurity, became something like a folksong in countries as diverse as Hawaii, Mexico, Germany and Zanzibar, and almost secretly accompanied the history of popular music for almost 140 years. Like many other songs it was almost played to death during the 60s and 70s, appearing on countless cheaply produced easy-listening albums, discredited by boring arrangements and faceless production. But it remains a fascinating fact (one of many concerning the history of this song) that La Paloma intrigued artists at home in so many different musical worlds whether it be Tango, Jazz, Pop, Opera, Twist, Surf, Contry, Reggae and Rock. What other piece of music may link Hawaiian slide guitar, Benjamino Gigli, Elvis, Charlie Parker, German íSchlagerí, Dean Martin, Chinese musicians, street singers in Paris and even the Callas, to name but a few?
     All over the world, La Paloma seems to capture the musical daydreams of humming, whistling and singing people. Its text might vary from one country to another, still everyone seems to feel the basic contents: longing, loneliness, separation, love, reunion, sometimes death. Evoking images of the ocean, doves and islands, it serves as a tool to abandon oneís own closed world for the beautiful unknown, at least for a moment. But that is only one part of a possible explanation, why La Paloma is such an exceptional tune. Even considering the catchy melody that never seems to loose its basic charme no matter what style is taking care of it, the reason for this kind of both persistence and diffusion, unparalleled in the history of music, remains a mistery.

A short history of La Paloma
     Although La Paloma became part of the folksong repertoire in many countries and the liner notes of a great deal of records still label it as ítraditionalí, it does have an identifiable composer. Sebastián de Iradier y Salaverri was born in 1809 in Lanciego, located in the province of Álava in Baskia, Spain. He shares the fate of many a 19th century composer: rather famous in his time, almost immedeately forgotten after his passing away. Not too many facts are known about Iradiers life. He played church organ in his youth, moves to Madrid, becomes first Maestro of Solfège there, trains singers and teachers alike, and seems to have worked his way up to the better circles of the society there. But the musical capital of the time was Paris, and thats where we find Iradier in 1851. Henri Heugel, the most important music publisher then, recounts that he met Iradier at the salon of maestro Rossini, the place to be invited to in Paris. There he must have had some kind of reputation, at least he became the private singing instructor of Eugénie, the wife of emperor Napoléon III. As she was of spanish origin, he might have met her earlier in his Madrid years. Nothing much is known about his character, a spanish critic describes him vaguely as ícontroversialí, some kind of adventurous soul, gaining protection and admiration as easily as getting into trouble for his lifestyle and behaviour. In 1861 Iradier somehow made it to Cuba, then a spanish colony. What took him there we donít know, but that is where he composed, among others, the two songs for which he always will be remembered. Two indeed, as he is also the unrecognized composer of the famous íHabaneraí everyone knows, the one sung in Carmen. It was Heugel, who realised that Bizet stole the melody of íEl arreglitoí out of a collection of spanish songs by Iradier that Heugel had published earlier. Ironically the little note survived on which Bizet himself ordered that collection out of the Bibliothèque Nationaleí. Iradier himself did not live to see this happen, he died in 1865, not too far from his birthplace in Vitoria, whithout witnessing the flight of La Paloma around the world.
     Like the carmen aria, La Paloma is written in the form of a habanera, a cuban dance rhythm. The exact date when it was written remains unknown, but already in the mid 1860ies there are german and french issues and translations of the original spanish text, attributed to Iradier as well. Apparently it didnít make much of an impression in Spain, but somehow this song has travelled from Cuba to Mexico where it was an instant success. Legend has it that the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian (nicknamed íThe Unfortunateí) wanted to hear his favourite song one last time, before the rifles of Benito Juárezí troups made an end to european hegemony in this part of middle america. As untrue as it is, this anecdote seems to be somehow typical for La Paloma. In Mexico at that time it was not only danced to at the court, but also sung and rewritten in the streets by the rebels. Of course you can still find it here today.
     From Mexico La Paloma travelled to Hawaii, accompanied by the guitar, introduced there by some mexican and californian vaqueros, cowboys. By 1900 the song was played with the new hawaiian guitar techniques, slack key and slide. The Pacific International Exposition in 1915 had some hawaiian entertainers and their music initiated the first craze of hawaiian style music, it hit Europe in the 20ies, reemerged in pre-war London, returned in the 50ies. One of the first songs recorded by hawaiian musicians: La Paloma.
     Around 1910 there were about 2000 different arrangements of La Paloma printed worldwide, an inormous figure clearly indicating the popularity of that song.
There were many routes along which La Paloma travelled around the world, one of them was the hawaiian, another was the military, as they had a lot of bands back then. Not surprisingly that one of the earliest recordings of La Paloma is made by the french Garde Républicaine in 1899. But also high society was enjoying the tune in the many salons that were florishing in the second half of the last century. That is where many opera singers gave recitals, where one went to be seen and wanted to discover new talent. Spanish songs represented the exotica of the day and were very popular, espacially the ones by Iradier. Again we find some irony in the fact that these ditties, as one critic called them, lost their popularity right before the recording age, and apart from La Paloma we find only one interpretation of another Iradier song on a 78, with the faded voice of one of the greatest singers of all times, Adelina Patti.
     But regarding La Paloma it almost seems as if Caruso is the only opera singer who did not record it, otherwise almost everybody did (Galli-Curci, de Lussan, Gigli, Schmidt, Tauber to Pavarotti). And it didnít stop there. La Paloma found ist way into Jazz, Jelly Roll Morton described it as part of the New Orleans repertoire, Charlie Parker played it, Carla Bley ...
     We find it in german Schlager charts more then one time, hear it by french chansonniers, find it raggaed up in Jamaica. Or played on a chin in China (with cool drum machine accompaniment), interpreted by german avantgarde rock band Amon Düül, listen to Elvis in Blue Hawaii, hear Dean Martin croon or Chubby Checker twist. Lately we found it on the bridge of spaceship Enterprise (thatís right, one of Mister Qís little tricks), as well as in numerous other films (two were named after it). We have russian versions, know of an arabic one, a japanese one, hear it being played in the Paris metro as well as in the train station of Charbin in Mandchuria. We listen to it played as a funeral march but how it ended up in Zanzibar as a wedding song is still a mistery waiting to be resolved.

One Song For All Worlds IV

La Paloma
One Song For All Worlds III

La Paloma
One Song For All Worlds II

La Paloma
One Song For All Worlds I
last updated: 24.01.2001 | top