20 songsDo You Speak It?

By | posted on 1st August 2014

When you listen to a song in a language you understand, the words at least are familiar even if their precise sense can’t always be inferred. But what thoughts are expressed in the songs of other languages? What worlds are created in those words? It could be the romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, or it could be the weekly shopping list. It could be an invitation to dance; it could be an incitement to rebellion.

Even when you know and understand the lyrics, there’s a certain romance and fantasy in the sound of a song of another culture, another country.

20 tracks, then, from different times and places. There’s a bias towards French and Spanish speaking countries, but the playlist will take you from South America through Africa and into Europe.

Buena Vista Social Club - Chan Chan

Wim Wenders’ 1998 documentary account of the Cuban music of Ibrahim Ferrer and friends introduced a lost world to millions, and took some of its stars on a journey from forgotten musicians to a rapturous reception at Carnegie Hall. 16 years on its surviving members, joined by rising Cuban stars, are out on a farewell tour. All I will say is that it is worth catching for the remarkable Omara Portuondo, a mere 83 years old and still capable of captivating an audience of thousands.

Staff Benda Bilili - Osali Mabe

Four paraplegic singer/guitarists form the core of the band, assisted by a "hype man" on crutches who whips the crowd into a frenzy, and backed by an all-acoustic rhythm section pounding out tight grooves. Then, on top of everything, are those inimitable and infectious solos performed by a teenage prodigy on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.Crammed Discs

Raul Seixas - Metamorfose Ambulante

Taken from Seixas’ debut album Krig-ha, Bandolo!, named after a Tarzan war cry meaning “Watch out, the enemy is near!”. In 2002, "Metamorfose Ambulante" appeared on the soundtrack to City of God. In 2007 it was listed by Rolling Stone in Brazil as the 39th greatest Brazilian song of all time.

Jorge Ben - Mais Que Nada

Staying in Brazil, but shooting up into the Top 5 on that Rolling Stone list, with a song by Jorge Ben that was more famously covered by Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, and then later nearly destroyed by Mendes and The Black Eyed Peas. This original is a late substitute into the list on account of it being peerlessly brilliant.

Tomas Andersson Wij - Mina Daliga Gener

-M- Ma Melodie

The character ‑M- is a superhero, noted for having a playful nature, and recognized for his flamboyant costumes (primarily monochrome suits with slim trousers and long jackets with upward pointed collars) and hair styled into the shape of an M.

Malajube - Etienne D’aout

Taken from the Canadian rock group’s 2006 album Trompe​-​l'Oeil.

Carla Bruni - Quelqu’un M’a Dit

Born into a musical family in Turin, Bruni is presumably the only person whose “Known for” section on Wikipedia reads: “Modelling and singing careers, marriage to French president”. "Quelqu’un M’a Dit" is the title track from her 2003 debut album.

Tindersticks - Plus De Liaisons

There is a small and not particularly grand tradition of English groups re-recording French versions of their songs. Blur’s "To The End (French Version)" could have got the nod here, but the fact that they couldn't even be bothered to translate the title of the song means they're given the hook in favour of Stuart Staples, whose personal count of languages he sounds sad in currently stands at 2.

Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun

Lazy old Blur could learn a lesson or two from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, who invented a whole language - Vonlenska, or Hopelandic as it is sometimes prosaically known in English - for some of their songs. Not "Agaetis Byrjun", though, which is sung in Icelandic, and means "A new beginning". It is the title track of their second album, which gave the band their breakthrough, and is so beautiful and gentle I firmly believe I could listen to it non-stop for about three years without growing tired. I say that, but then the BBC tried a similar experiment with "Hoppipolla", and look how that turned out.