Every city has its own sounds–its purrs, dins, and melodies. If you want to plumb the rich auditory heritage of Colombia’s cities, this mapa sonoro (sound map) will let you do so. Listen to an entertainer tell stereotypical Boyacá jokes on a bus, hear the chants from a march for peace in Bogotá, enjoy the mellifluous accents of neighbors shooting the breeze in Medellín. A wonderful fonoteca: a sound archive. Next week is the second annual Colombian Week of Sound: a week of free lectures, round tables, sound exhibits, and performances in Bogotá, all of them dedicated to the country’s inadvertent music. 

segunda semana de sonido en Colombia

Although every city has scents and sounds that belong to it, each place will also have the scents and sounds you bring to it or those you create. In your memories of the soundtrack of a city, there might be the screeches and groans of public transport and the cries of the avocado vendor over his megaphone while he purveyed his goods in the neighborhood, but there will also be memories of the music you turned on when you were in your apartment (assuming that none of your neighbors played vallenato at all hours a todo taco that prohibited personal listening) or always had piping in from your earbuds on the bus. Did you listen to local artists? Cling to your favorite bands from back home like never before? Or perhaps incongruously fall in love with music from the other side of the world? Maybe you wanted nothing more than to disconnect from the bullicio of the outside world and the nonstop prattle in a tongue you didn’t understand, so your apartment became a sanctum of blissful silence.

My personal soundtrack in Bogotá was Lhasa de Sela (folk, Mexico/U.S.), and in Medellín it was Silvio Rodríguez (folk, Cuba). My banda sonora when I first got back to the U.S. was Mercedes Sosa (folk, Argentina). She died soon after I moved to Bogotá, and the fact that she received three days of official national mourning made it clear to me that she was hugely important. I listened to a few songs of hers then, but it wasn’t until I was back in the U.S. that I started listening to her obsessively. Of course, I listened to many other artists in all of these cities, but none as fervently as these three.

I want to look at a word that stumped me in songs by these artists: fuera. It’s also high time I wrote a grammar post. I usually feel comfortable with Spanish grammar, but one verb tense that still throws me off at times is the imperfect subjunctive. (Actually, I’m still a hot mess when it comes to expressing certain things. So, I naturally do lots of lingual gymnastics to avoid saying–or feeling–these things at all.) Of course, the subjunctive in general can be murky. Song lyrics are always enigmatic, but here are my attempts to decipher some grammar so I could understand and appreciate the songs better. And if we can enjoy some wonderful music in the background de paso, so much the better.

The first song is Lhasa’s Desdeñosa (Disdainful). It’s actually a traditional Peruvian waltz titled Desdén (Disdain), and it has also been interpreted by Julio Jaramillo, among others. She changed the lyrics slightly.

No necesito amar – absurdo fuera,
repetiré el sermón de la montaña
por eso de llevar hasta que muera
todo el odio inmortal que me acompaña.

I don’t need to love – absurdo fuera,
I’ll repeat the Sermon on the Mount
for carrying to my death
all of the immortal hatred that keeps me company.

I could be wrong, but to me it seems that some key word has been done away with. This ellipsis enhances word economy, of course, but also reduces clarity. Maybe the omitted word is aunque or así. If it said aunque/así fuera absurdo, it could be interpreted as “even if it it’s absurd, I’ll repeat the Sermon on the Mount.” Or maybe the assumed phrase is por absurdo que fuera = as absurd as it might be, I’ll repeat the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a beautiful song, and the overall meaning is clear enough.

¿Qué cosa fuera, qué cosa fuera la maza sin cantera?
Un amasijo hecho de cuerdas y tendones,
un revoltijo de carne con madera,
un instrumento sin mejores pretensiones
que lucecitas montadas para escena.

¿Qué cosa fuera, qué cosa fuera the hammer without a quarry?
A tangle of strings and tendons,
a mess of flesh with wood,
an instrument that can aspire at best
to be mere lights set up on a stage.

This song is by Silvio Rodríguez, but I, like many people, prefer Mercedes Sosa’s cover. And I like her version with Shakira even better. No matter who was singing it, though, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the lyrics. Even after I looked up maza and cantera, I still couldn’t understand the song’s essential refrain: ¿Qué cosa fuera? My thinking went more along the lines of: ¿Qué demonios “fuera” qué cosa fuera?

Research led me to the realization that fuera is used where sería would be used in standard Spanish. Why replace the conditional with the imperfect subjunctive? Well, they, ahem, I mean we, actually do it regularly in Spanish. For example, you might say, Quisiera hablar con ella a solas instead of querría to say I would like to. People say things like, Pareciera que no le gusto instead of parecería to say it would seem. I also think of the phrase, ¿Qué te dijera yo? to say “What could I tell you?” And ¡Ya quisiera yo! . . . (ser alta, tener novia, que me hubieran contratado) for I (could only) wish! ¡Ya quisieras! You (would) wish! And, then, of course, using hubiera instead of habría in conditional phrases. Habría largely disappeared from my speech a long time ago.

According to the RAE and the NGLE, the conditional form of some modal verbs such as poder, deber, saber, querer, and parecer and the auxiliar verb haber are often interchanged with the imperfect subjunctive. Also, valer. Sometimes this is to soften what you’re saying to make it more courteous or modest. Other times, it’s used in hypothetical phrases to express the apodosis, that is, a conditional phrase where you don’t include the if clause. The -ra can be used with other verbs, but nowadays this sounds quite archaic and bookish in most areas. ¡Nadie lo creyera! [si no lo hubieses contado tú] 

So, it all makes sense now. Silvio/Mercedes is asking, What would the hammer be without the quarry? What would I be? What would the artist with his guitar be without inspiration? You just have to understand ¿Qué cosa fuera? as ¿Qué cosa sería? Of course, liberties are taken in art because lyrics have to fit into a fixed rhyme and meter scheme. Some people have speculated that the use of the imperfect subjunctive instead of conditional is more common in Cuba and perhaps the Caribbean region, but to be honest no supiera decirte.

Estoy buscando melodía
para tener cómo llamarte.
Quién fuera ruiseñor,
quién fuera Lennon y McCartney,
Sindo Garay, Violeta, Chico Buarque,
quién fuera tu trovador. 

I’m looking for a melody
to know just how to call you.
Quién fuera nightingale,
quién fuera Lennon and McCartney,
Sindo Garay, Violeta, Chico Buarque,
quién fuera your troubadour.

And now to a Silvio Rodríguez song that he both wrote and is singing. For the longest time, I took it for granted that quién fuera must have been asking a question about the past. Either quién fue or quién era or some fuzzy space in the middle. I was dead wrong, though. Actually, quién + imperfect subjunctive is a set phrase that is an equivalent of ojalá + imperfect subjunctive. One of the most classic settings for this construction is in piropos. ¡Quién fuera el patito de goma de tu bañera! Oh, to be the rubber ducky in your bathtub! ¡Quién fuera bizco para mirarte doble, hermosa! If only I were cross-eyed so I could see you in double, gorgeous! ¡Quién fuera noche para caerte encima! What I wouldn’t give to be the night to descend on you! This expression usually refers to oneself, and you use it for things that are either impossible or at least not currently true. It’s not very common in everyday speech.

So, the song expresses Silvio Rodriguez’ wish to be different people to be able to access the depths of a woman’s dark, guarded heart: an enchanter like Ali Baba, an explorer like Jacques Cousteau, a songbird to know just the right words to say. But in the end, all he has is his song. In essence, I suppose this song’s title is just like that of his most famous song, Ojalá. If only . . .

I think it’s often best when music doesn’t make sense or has some distinct, personal (but completely mistaken) meaning for you. Sometimes, though, it pays to seek to understand the syntax and vocabulary of songs in Spanish because you never know where you might run into them again. Now, I’ve shared three favorite songs with you to alegrar your day; share one of your own favorites with all of us in the comments. In the meantime, there are some excellent suggestions in the stanza from Silvio Rodríguez: Lennon and McCartney (The Beatles), Sindo Garay, Violeta Parra, and Chico Buarque. Such good music to listen to; such a good life to be enjoyed and shared.


9 responses to “Fuera

  1. I’m surprised the ancient and traditional art of reggaetón wasn’t represented here, Katie :P

    Here’s one of my favourite songs which I discovered while in Colombia, a jazz twist on a bambuco (though I can’t say I’d recognise one of those if I were played it.) The singer (Gina Savino) has a gorgeous voice, and such haunting words…


  2. Nice music in your blog, quien lo creyera? You wouldn’t believe it but I never heard Silvio Rodriguez singing, or speaking for that matter. That bambuco was really nice and, of course, Mercedes Sosa is great.

    I can see how this conjugation is difficult to grasp. In the first example, no necesito amar — absurdo fuera, the absurdo fuera part is an explanation to the first part. I just follows the conclusion that you reached: seria absurdo si yo necesitara amar. Then, “no supiera decirte” would be “no sabria decirte” (you add the tildes). I might be wrong, but I can’t think of “supiera” in a situation without the conditional (si no supiera…) You can always come back with counter examples… let’s see.

    I am not going to post links to music. Just a riddle to see if you can complete the sentence (from a song): “Quisiera ser un pez…”


    • Oh, really? No Silvio? Well, everything will depend on what someone likes. Also, the tastes of their parents and friends. I definitely don’t like all of his songs, but there are several CDs/periods of his that I like a lot.

      So, what/who do you listen to? Not just in Spanish– I mean in general.

      My eyes started crossing with all this grammar talk! I understand the essential meaning and spirit of these lyrics, so I’m happy. This web page gives several examples of the imperfect subjunctive without the conditional. And, personally, I remember someone I was very close to in Colombia who would always say, ¿Qué te dijera yo?


      No, I didn’t know the lyrics! But I know the song. I don’t care for Juan Luis Guerra, although I know that he’s a great human being. And his music is very happy. There are a few songs of his that I like, but in general he’s not my favorite. I guess the lyrics also could have been: ¡Quién fuera un pez para tocar mi nariz en tu pecera! :)


  3. When I have complete control of the music, that is, when nobody else has to listen to what I play, I do either rock, pop or latin. Nothing too extreme and I am not on top of the new stuff. The hardest rock would be something like Guns and Roses, and that is not really hard. In the right moment I can go for Hip-Hop or reggaeton, and have lots of fun with it. On the other extreme, I love the opera.

    About the the imperfect subjunctive, I literally meant supiera vs sabría. You have to remember that whatever I say about grammar comes mostly from stuff I learned early in high school (it would be middle school here), and that happened a long time ago, so I am not necessarily credible. I then have to rely on my intuition from having grown up with the language. In this case, the “supiera” doesn’t sound right. But we know well that native speakers are often wrong.


    • As my goal is to become a native speaker of Spanish, I’m excused from having to understand all the ins and outs of grammar as well. Mejor dicho, neither of has to apologize to the other for not knowing everything! But to the rest of my readers, I’ll have to fake it as best I can :)


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