Director's Blog: Singing "El Pendon Estrellado", the National Anthem en español for the Smithsonian

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Editor’s Note: Cantigas was asked by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to interpret “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish based on the work of Clotilde Arias, whose life is explored in the Museum’s new exhibition, Not Lost in Translation: The Life of Clotilde Arias. Arias was commissioned by the U.S. State Department to translate the national anthem into a Spanish version that could be sung to the original tune in 1945. Aristic Director Diana Sáez talks about the experience.


My whole life I wanted to be a choir conductor. I know this sounds a little strange to the average person, but it is what I dreamed of. Twenty-two years ago when I came to Washington, D.C., with a Masters of Fine Arts in choir conducting, I decided to put together a chamber choir that would specialize in Latin American classical, popular, and folk repertoire. Coral Cantigas was born in 1991. I never imagined that someday we would be performing the national anthem of the United States, much less in Spanish.

Being commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to record and perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish was an interesting challenge for me since Cantigas’s repertoire has been so very different, concentrating mostly on Spanish, African, and indigenous influences in the music of the Americas. I had no idea there was an official Spanish translation and was intrigued by the concept.

I took on the challenge with the belief that this project is important for all Americans. I have known the curator of the exhibition, Marvette Pérez, for many years and have collaborated with her on several music projects. When she explained to me the history of this translation and the connection with the exhibition, I and our board of directors agreed that we had to do it. Being an official and singable translation, and one requested by the State Department during the 1940s as part of the Good Neighbor Policy, added another dimension to our mission to sing and disseminate the music of Latin America, Spain, and Portugal to the world. Singing the U.S. national anthem in Spanish would be a meaningful collaboration.

Arias’s translation turned out to be faithful to the English lyrics, the timing of the music, and is easy to sing. I set out to find a four-part vocal arrangement that would be a little different and original. I approached my friend and great arranger, Philip Silvey, who had a beautiful rendition that he graciously let us use. Marvette came to our recording session to explain the history of the translation and Arias’s backstory, and this made a big difference in our singers’ interpretation and delivery. The singers felt proud to be included in a historical project. You can hear their voices in the soundscape of the exhibition. And, as far as we know, we are the first to record this version of the national anthem in Spanish, “El Pendón Estrellado.” 

We were also asked to perform one of Clotilde Arias’s most popular compositions, “Huiracocha,” a song in the Andean musical style of Peru. I called my colleague Isabel Salas in Peru who put me in touch with the choral arranger of “Huiracocha,” Alejandro Núñez Allauca, who gracefully shared his beautiful arrangement with us. I loved the element of nostalgia in the song, and how this arrangement brings it to the surface. In this song you feel Clotilde Arias’s love for her country and her hometown of Iquitos.

Arias’s is a remarkable story about a Peruvian immigrant musician who became an American citizen. I relate to her, her love of music and her recognition of the importance of this art form in connecting the lives of all the people in the world. The members of Coral Cantigas and I are proud to be part of this wonderful project and to have been able to interpret the music and lyrics of this extraordinary Latina.

Dr. Diana Sáez is the Founding Artistic Director of Coral Cantigas


Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012: Cantigas soloist Cara Rogers Gonzalez performed the anthem in both English and Spanish at the museum’s press announcement where we had the privilege of meeting Clotilde Arias’s son and grandchildren. Visit our facebook photo gallery to see photos of the event and tune in for the story about Clotilde Arias on National Public Radio (NPR) soon! Pictured here are Clotilde Arias’s son and grandchildren with Cantigas’s Magalie Salas, Cara Rogers Gonzalez, Diana Sáez and Marisa Arbona-Ruiz; and, exhibition curator Marvette Pérez addressing the audience.



Cantigas Performs The Star-Spangled Banner en español” and Huiracocha at Smithsonian

On Saturday, September 29, Cantigas will bring Arias’ translation to life Saturday, Sept. 29, in a free program, “The Star-Spangled Banner en español,” which also features “Huiracocha.” Performances by the full chorus are set for 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. in front of the Star-Spangled Banner gallery. Peruvian food specials will be served in the Stars and Stripes Cafe with a guest demonstration Sept. 29 by Peruvian embassy Chef Jorge Gomez.




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