|Nice cover but can you understand the lyrics?|
You’ve probably clicked the link to the track I embedded above, or maybe you will do it later, after you’ve read this post. Does it matter if we understand the words of a particular song? This is more relevant to enthusiasts of the genre known as “world music” (a bigger misleading appellation has yet to be invented by man) as we are constantly exposed to melodies from all over the world. Whereas Anglo-Saxon music – of the rock and pop variety – ruled my teenage years, my late 20s, 30s and now early 40s have been characterised by records from Azerbaijan, Mali and Malaysia, to name but a few of the countries whose artists fill up my ever-stretching CD shelves. What this means is that my musical borders have expanded and new horizons have been explored, in addition to developing a deeper understanding of other nations’ cultural make-up. What it also means is that I still find myself at a loss when it comes to attempting to decode the language in which many of these songs are performed. And still you will find me trawling the vast, borderless, faceless internet for the golden key that will unlock a particular song’s mystery.
Efforts like this is what I would like to believe Chris Moss had in mind when he penned that controversial article in Songlines magazine back in the summer. As a consequence of his “Soapbox” column, there was a discussion about people’s attitudes towards music sung in a language different to their native tongue. It also earned me a “Star Letter” award in the next issue.
Chris’s feature opens with three examples of songs that probably get people tapping and nodding along until you find out what they’re about. It’s something I have witnessed myself in Cuba when I still lived there. Occasionally a freelance job would come up and as part of the experience I would take the person or persons to a salsa concert. As they shook their booty to the catchy Latin rhythm, I would whisper in their ear what the singers were saying in the chorus. Cue horror and surprise. I still remember on one occasion a Canadian woman who called herself a feminist stopping dead on the spot when I told her that what they were bellowing out from the stage was (literally) “I don’t want no broken c...s”. She got so upset that she asked me to take her to the venue manager immediately. To which I replied: “Are you really planning a) to make your way through this sea of people in the dark and b) try to stop the music because you find it offensive after I had to translate to you what they were saying because you can’t speak Spanish?” She calmed down but I doubt she listens to salsa now.
Chris’s article is full of passion. The guy learnt Spanish in Buenos Aires and as he avers in the piece, that opened up a whole new world to him. I totally understand him. The same happened to me when I came across English. So, why don’t more people do this, open themselves up to new experiences through the medium of a foreign language?
As I wrote before the column stirred up some controversy, not least because Mr Moss seemed to take issue with his fellow English-speaking fellows. So, the next issue and the one after that – in which my missive was named Star Letter – were full of responses in the mould of “I didn’t know I had to speak the language to enjoy the music”. I can see the point of those replies, too. I don’t know how many times I have heard it said that music is universal. One correspondent’s comments chimed with me. She wrote that she listened to music (all music) with “an open heart”. This is a trait I have found amongst many of “world music” lovers. Perhaps it is the trait that unites us all and this niche mentality, this secret brother/sisterhood is the only reason why I still use the term “world music” despite the fact I hate it. But at the same time I can’t stop thinking of the composers and singers who write words for people to listen to them, understand them, analyse and discuss them. I’m not talking here of the easy-listening or dance-orientated approach of chill-out and salsa music respectively. In those two cases lyrics are sadly superfluous oftentimes. The intention is to get people to tap their feet and nod their heads as opposed to use their brains. I’m referring more specifically to songs from the likes of Angelique Kidjo, Habib Koite or MC Solaar. These are singers and singer songwriters whose compositions brim with social and political messages. I do feel that if you don’t grasp at least the essence of what they are saying you miss a huge chunk, not just of the actual song, but also of the context in which the song was written.
Chris writes about his discovery of the music of Violeta Parra and León Gieco (the latter was part of the soundtrack to my adolescent years) and how this led him to understand Argentina’s historical, cultural and socio-political narrative. The same happened to me when I began to listen to Anglo-Saxon rock and pop. As an experiment to find out if I could listen to and understand music with “an open heart” I dusted off my old copy of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and played the third track, Masters of War. I imagined that I was someone who couldn’t understand a word in English; therefore Bob’s bitter indictment of the US establishment would most likely pass over my head. But, I said to myself if I just focus on the melody I should be all right, after all I could always “feel “it. So, that’s what I did, I tried to just “feel” the melody, just feel it for what it was, I concentrated hard, I closed my eyes, I scrunched up my face in a deep frown and... I failed. Don’t get me wrong, nice guitar chords, but if you can’t speak English the song becomes just a succession of similar notes on a loop with a nasal voice singing over them. It was also disrespectful to Bob himself, my experiment, it was, because if Dylan had wanted someone to "feel" Masters of War rather than understand it, he would have written the song as an instrumental. With a different musical arrangement, for sure. This is the reason why, when someone tells me that they "feel", say, the Cuban singer songwriter Silvio Rodríguez's music, I always think that they're getting only half the picture. The half they are missing includes tracks like La Familia, la Propiedad Privada y el Amor (literally, The Family, Private Property and Love, a reference to Friedrich Engels' treatise calle The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), where Silvio rages against the patriarchy, organised religion and so-called morality. Like Dylan's Masters of War the guitar chords are uncomplicated, but the words are some of the more powerful you will find in any song in Spanish.
What can we, world music lovers, do to overcome this language deficit? My advice is the same I gave in my letter in Songlines. It is impossible to speak the language of every single singer or composer in the world. But it is more manageable and realistic to master one or even two languages and through them explore the music of the culture to which they belong. In the case of Spanish, that means exploring the culture of more than 330 million people. No doubt you will find melodies as haunting as Adwa and singers as mesmerising as Gigi.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd November at 10am (GMT)