Wednesday 29 October 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About the Songs We Do Not Understand)

Adwa is the last track of Ethiopian singer Gigi’s 2001 debut album of the same name. It is a haunting melody that lingers long after the last note has faded away. It is also a song sung in Amharic, Gigi’s mother tongue. In fact, the whole record is performed in this language. Yet, it remains one of my favourite CDs ever more than ten years after I bought it.

Nice cover but can you understand the lyrics?
Adwa tells the story of the battle that saw the forces of the Ethiopian Empire overpower the army of the nascent Kingdom of Italy. I know all this, not because I speak Amharic, but because I looked the song title up online.

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 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 grooving to the live band in actiona and 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 any 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 samey-samey 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.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd November at 10am (GMT)


  1. True, we will never get them all, but a few will come due

  2. i can def appreciate a song in another language...i have a good friend that always posts music videos from across the pond in different languages and i usually give a listen...there are some quite beautiful though i know not a wit about what it said...

  3. Sound is very important to me; language is secondary. I have loss of hearing for some pitches (machine gun ears, a few call it) and greater sensitivity to other levels. Most "country western voices" "hurt" my ears. I enjoy the sound of a woman singing in French; I do not care for the sound of French sung with a "typical" male voice. Weird, hah?

    I listened to your young lady, and enjoyed several of the songs on this album, CiL. In fact, I have it playing right now and am chair dancing to some of her music. (Remember that term?) If the sound is "right to my ears," language really is secondary .... very secondary. If the sound is distasteful, I will not listen no matter what the language or its message.

    At the risk of sounding like a contrarian, I would like to point out that Bobby Dylan's "Masters of War" was in reference to the so-called "military-industrial complex" and to the Cold War. And, no doubt, while aimed mostly at the U.S. and very much at the Soviet Union, as well, never-the-less also included Great Britain in its message and, one might argue, Cuba as Fidel was attempting to structure it at that time under Soviet auspices.

    I guess I am in a USA mood right now.

  4. Communication (even in our own language) is fraught. But we need to try. And I do.

  5. I have heard songs in so many different languages, it is fun to explore! I especially love the really old songs (and when I say really old, I am referring to from the early 1900's to 1940's). Great music, in any language! :)

  6. I'm doing my best on the learning-Spanish front.

    And I sing in a choir - mostly classical music. So I've sung requiems and masses in Latin (which I did understand but not believe), and a lovely Russian carol (didn't understand a word). I've sung in French and German. I'm completely dependent on the composer and his/her notation to give me a clue as to what I'm singing.

    I do it - because it does wonderful things in my head. It's one of the only things I do where it's impossible to think about anything else. It fills every thinking-space with music. Does it matter that I don't understand, or don't believe what I'm singing, even when the music is wonderful? Not sure I know the answer to that, but I'm not going to stop!

  7. I don't mind if the language isn't mine own but you should see me dance (or maybe not) and hum as the music plays.

  8. Sometimes you can understand what the singer is saying even without knowing the language though...

  9. Sometimes music is its own language.

  10. No sigo los cantantes, así que he ido a oír un vídeo de ella, lo cierto que tiene un buen ritmo, me gusta.
    Gracias por compartir, un abrazo.

  11. This is a broad subject. Voice is an instrument too and I can be trabsported by a glorious voice without understanding a word, such as in an opera. We can never know enough languages to understand all lyrics so often rely on the spirit of a song and Google. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  12. I love African music particularly - while I'm listening I don't care what the lyrics are, but I do like to have a translation available so that I can then learn what the words means and then listen again and better appreciate the whole song, music and words together.

    Oddly, I find it difficult to understnad the lyrics of songs in foreign languages I speak, even in German which I can hear very clearly when spoken.

  13. I never bother about the language barrier when I listen to music...if I like the way it sounds, then I will dance to it...and hum it's tune.
    That is really all that matters to me - that I like it's sound.:)

    Have a Fabulous Weekend.

  14. For a very long time I had to understand the words because the melody wasn't as important as the message. But I became a jazz aficionado in the early 1990s and that has released me to appreciate all types of world music where the soaring vocals in another tongue can still be deeply felt.

  15. I have to say that I have never thought about this issue very much. I really like music in other languages, and it never bothered me very much that I didn't understand the words as I often don't understand the words of English lyrics-but when you mention Dylan that definitely raises a point--he would be very hard to appreciate if you don't speak English. On the other hand, Dylan's songs are (in my mind) pretty verbal and not so melodic--I love Dylan--so I don't mean to put down his musicianship--but there is a repetitive quality to some of the actual music_-and I note that the "world music" I tend to listen to is usually very beautiful simply on the musical level.

    But you know often we like music even in our own language with very unclear understandings of the words--there have been many songs I listened to again and again with my own versions of the words--usually they made no sense but I never seemed to let that bother me. At any rate, it is an interesting post and I commend you on tracking down true lyrics. k.

  16. Many thanks for all your opinions. I really appreciate your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  17. i love to listen to songs in a language i don't understand as i can just let me fall into the music and the feel of a song... one of my favs is the title song from the movie frozen in spanish - love that song - and even sing along - even though i don't understand a word...smiles
    happy saturday!!

  18. Her voice is haunting, although the snippet that you can hear on Amazon is short. Somewhere I have a CD set of jazz from Cuba which I have enjoyed over the years.

  19. I've been a huge Gigi fan since the beginning of her career. Her use of Amharic is indeed highly symbolic and she led the visibility of Ethiopian culture in the early oughts.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...