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Interpretation of “Porto Rico” by Vasilis Papakonstantinou

I have already commented on a song by Vasilis Papakonstantinou: Interpretation of “Trench coat”. Though I believe there are more items in his repertoire we could learn from.

For this entry I have selected: Porto Rico. We can treat it more as a poem than the average song, though its music also makes it a noteworthy contribution to the rock genre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPELcaItvFY. The second half, in particular, is exceptional.

Here are the lyrics, my translation, and philosophical commentary:

Πόρτο Ρίκο

Ερμηνεία:  Βασίλης Παπακωνσταντίνου
Στίχοι:    Άλκης Αλκαίος
Μουσική:   Σταμάτης Μεσημέρης


Φιγούρα ξωτική και ταξιδιάρικη
στο φως του φεγγαριού ανθίζει πάλι
γιατί όλη τη ζωή του την εξόδεψε
παράφορα γυρεύοντας μιαν άλλη

Θυμάμαι σαν παιδί γελούσε κι έλεγε
στη σέλα ακροβατώντας ποδηλάτου:
«Τον κόσμο εμείς θα φέρουμε στα μέτρα μας
πριν να μας φέρει εκείνος στα δικά του»

Μα ο κόσμος προχωρά χωρίς να μας ρωτά
κλεισμένοι δρόμοι, κλέφτες και αστυνόμοι
«αγάπα το κελί σου», του παν, κι ύστερα
έξω πιο μόνος μα γελούσε ακόμη

Μια νύχτα μεθυσμένη παίρνει ανάποδες
ημερολόγια καίει και πτυχία
Το χάραμα μπαρκάρει σε πειρατικό
για της ζωής του την σκηνοθεσία

Αλγέρι, Αλεξάνδρεια, South Africa
στο Άμστερνταμ δυο τέρμινα και κάτι
Γλιστρούσαν οι αγάπες μες στα μάτια του
σαν τον αφρό στα δάχτυλα του ναύτη

Στο Πόρτο Ρίκο χρόνια ασυλλόγιστα
και τις καρδιάς του σκόρπισε τα φύλλα
σε υπόγεια σκοτεινά και ύποπτα
λες και έψαχνε το φως μες στην ξεφτίλα

Κάποια ζεστή βραδιά σε ένα μπλουζάδικο
άκουσε να φαλτσάρει η μουσική του
τα αφεντικά στο δρόμο τον πετάξανε
τα στίγματα σαν είδαν στο κορμί του

Κι η Σύλβια που με πάθος τον αγάπησε
δεν έλειψε στιγμή απ' το πλευρό του
ζητώντας με μανία στην αγκάλη του
την κόλαση και τον παράδεισό του

Σαλπάρισε μια νύχτα με πανσέληνο
και στο στερνό του γράμμα μου 'χε γράψει:
«Αξίζει φίλε να υπάρχεις για ένα όνειρο
και ας είναι η φωτιά του να σε κάψει»

Τα χρόνια έχουν περάσει δε θυμάμαι πια
Ερνέστο τον ελέγανε η Νίκο;
Κι ακόμα συγχωρείστε με που ξέχασα
αν χάθηκε στο Μετς η στο Πόρτο Ρίκο

Όσο για μένα είμαι πάντα εδώ
με των ματιών σας την φωτιά σημαία
είναι όμορφα απόψε που ανταμώσαμε
μ' αρέσει να αρμενίζουμε παρέα
Porto Rico

Singer:  Vasilis Papakonstantinou
Lyrics:  Alkis Alkaios
Music:   Stamatis Mesimeris


Exotic and wondering figure
blossoms again in the moonlight
because he spent his whole life
passionately searching for another

I recall as a kid he would laugh and say
while balancing on a bicycle's seat:
"We'll bring the world to our measurements
before it brings us to its own"

But the world moves on without asking us
closed off streets, cops and robbers
"love your cell", they told him, and then
ever-so-lonely outside [the prison cell] yet he still laughed

On a drunken night he goes berserk
burns diaries and diplomas
At dawn he embarks on a pirate ship
for his life's art direction

Algiers, Alexandria, South Africa,
in Amsterdam two terminals and something
loves slipped through his eyes
like the froth at the sailor's fingers

Reckless years in Porto Rico
and he mindlessly scattered his heart's cards
in dark and suspicious basements
as if searching for light in humiliation

On a warm night at a blues bar
he heard his song out of tune
the masters threw him on the streets
as soon as they saw the spots on his body

And Sylvia who loved him with a passion
never left his side for a moment
desperately asking in his hug
his hell and heaven

He sailed off on full moon night
and in his final letter he wrote to me:
"It is worth it, friend, to live for a dream
even if its fire is to burn you"

The years have gone by and I can't recall anymore
Ernesto was his name or Nikos?
And further forgive me as I forgot
if he got lost in Metz or Porto Rico

As for me I'm always here
with the fire in your eyes as my flag
it is beautiful we've met tonight
I like that we travel together

Let’s get this out real quick: “Ernesto” refers to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, while “Nikos” is Nikos Beloyannis. Both were political figures who believed in the ideal of progressing towards a more just world. They would not accept the established order as-is. The song is thus inspired by the politics of resistance, anti-imperialism, and revolution, though its contents are not political, let alone communist, per se. They can be read in those terms, which is fair, though I want to pivot towards a different direction.

When we speak of “politics” in everyday parlance, we tend to imagine shrewd politicians on TV, conniving apparatchiks running things behind the scenes, unscrupulous lobbyist exerting control at the centres of power, shameless spin doctors weaving noble truths out of egregious lies, and so on. It is dirty and messy. Yet “politics” also encapsulates the instituted reality we all live in.

Our culture is a nexus of social norms, legal rules, and concomitant roles. It is underpinned by value judgements for practically every aspect of life. What it means to be a “girl”, which job counts as “manly”, what is the place of the individual within the family structure or the community, whether the younger generation gets any say in major decisions, how wealth and resources are distributed among the members of the group, what even constitutes a group, the way work is organised, what is property or ownership, et cetera. Every interpersonal relation is underpinned, foreshadowed, framed, or otherwise conditioned by politics.

It is an instituted reality because it is predicated on conventional arrangements. There is nothing strictly objective to it, notwithstanding various rationalisations and apologias of the status quo as the mechanistic outcome of “human nature”. What is instituted necessarily can be re-instituted. It can be fathomed in a new light. It is possible, for example, to redraw the delineations of what a “manly” job is, how resources are distributed among the members of the social whole, who gets to decide for our common needs, and so on.

What is truly part of nature cannot be subject to institution. Humanity may not, for instance, decide that the Sun shall no longer rise from the East or that lungs shall henceforth perform the function of the liver. It is not institution that informs those magnitudes.

[ Read/watch: Conventions, relativism, and cosmopolitanism as well as Expectations, rules, and role-playing ]

While an instituted reality is not human-independent, it still remains outside the purview of any given individual. We must not conflate the philosophical point on the non-objectivity of institutions, with the practical perception of constancy as seen from the perspective of an individual.

No person can, for example, unilaterally change how all others uphold the various institutions. In this regard, on this microscopic scale, the individual can only treat the instituted reality as a given: it simply is there and it influences everyone. An individual cannot merely proclaim that “it is all arbitrary, anyway!” and thus be emancipated from the grip of the instituted reality. This is why the song says that the world can/will bring us to its measurements: we are cast in a mould and are made in the image of the particular political milieu. What others think and decide—what has been codified as culture, tradition, rules of conduct, wants and expectations, as well as legal order—has a profound effect on our personhood and outlook from day one of our life.

Consider the diplomas that our rebellious hero destroys unceremoniously. We live in a world in which we are our degrees and qualifications. The substance gets lost is or disregarded very easily. A personal anecdote is relevant. I once applied for a job and was asked to supply proof of my knowledge of English. I have no formal document to support my claims, as that requires a lot of money to acquire; money which not everyone gets in life when they need it. I told them that I have written a zillion words on my website and can speak to them in person, expound at length on matters I know about, produce any essay or report for a test, and so on. “Sorry sir, we need a certificate”… To which I replied: “no, you need a reality check”.

The point is that whatever the individual may think is largely irrelevant. If the world around us works a certain way, we either grow/shrink to fit its measurements or suffer the consequences of being a misfit—and “suffer” is not a figure of speech here! If we don’t do things the expected way, we will be marginalised and/or have trouble finding opportunities. This goes for potential employment positions, but also for human relations at-large. It is why the song mentions the solitude outside the prison cell.

The poetic third person, here going by the name of Ernesto or Nikos, speaks to us twice: (i) about the measurements of the world and whether we should fit in, and (ii) that it is worth living one’s dream. We already covered the former, so let us consider the latter. I am of the view that the meaning is encapsulated in this scene where the agent of action burns diaries and diplomas. I can relate to it through personal experience. The lyrics symbolise a turning point, where one decides to walk their own path, whatever the cost. It is not the rage of the moment that provides the impetus. Such is but the culmination of a long and deliberate process of sincere self-reflection: we set new priorities, cut ties with the past, strip away the fakery, and perform a leap of faith into the unknown.

I, too, have discarded tokens of all sorts. It is all those items which serve as currency for social recognition. Just visualise the pedantic administrator who demands redeemable superficialities, else proof of our prior conformity with the rules of the game, to assess our worth. It is not our qualities that are being put to the test, but the performative aspect thereof. It matters not whether one speaks English in practice, for what is needed is the rubber stamp of whatever authority (salient or otherwise). Per this example, the administrator embodies the prevailing mentality: they instantiate and enforce the instituted reality in the given situation.

Who is Sylvia? The fellow human, here a lover, who appreciates our Ernesto/Nikos for who he is, not who society wants him to be. Sylvia, then, has the resolve and perseverance to look past the phenomenalities in order to find the real person within. In this sense, Sylvia shares the same goal as her lover. She is yet another Ernesto or Nikos who seeks the truth, who wants to discover what one’s true self is, and who is prepared to show to the powers that be how there exists an alternative and how we needn’t all be put to the Procrustean Bed in order to fit the measurements of the world. One size does not suit everybody. Such is a dream worth living. May its purifying fire burn incessantly.