We’ve always had a soft spot for Shakira, and we were thus interested to see this week that she’s planning to record an album in Arabic. Of course, she already speaks (and sings in) Spanish and English, so adding a third language will be yet another string to her lingustic bow, although she has to actually learn Arabic first – apparently her command of the language is currently limited to saying, “Can I have a kiss?” Which is obviously the first phrase you learn in any language. Anyway, she’s only one of a bunch of interesting musicians whose use of language in their music extends beyond a single native tongue – here’s a selection of ten of our favorites.
In the liner notes of the best-of compilation Death to the Pixies, written by Come On Pilgrim producer Gary Smith, there’s a great paragraph that recalls the looks of disbelief the Pixies would get from unsuspecting patrons who wandered into their early shows. It’s hard to understate how unusual they must have been in 1987 – a strange and robotic drummer, an unassuming Filipino guy who spent most of his time coaxing unholy noises from his guitar, a startlingly pretty bassist, and a fat dude howling like a man possessed. In Spanish. Even if his command of the language’s grammatical nuances is a little loose at times, Black Francis’ affinity for Latino culture is a strong and enduring one – he undertook a six-month exchange to Puerto Rico as a college student, and the band’s publishing company is called Rice and Beans Music. The Pixies’ music, particularly in the early days, was virtually bilingual, often switching from English to Spanish and back again in the course of a single song – one of many reasons that they were (and remain) such a unique and influential group.
It’s kind of easy to forget that Martha Wainwright grew up in Montreal and thus has a fine command of French – but even before she released her album of Édith Piaf covers a couple of years back, she was regularly throwing French-language songs into her live set. Our favorite is her beautiful interpretation of Barbara’s “Dis, Quand Reviendras-Tu?,” which we’ve embedded above.
An obvious choice, perhaps, but Gogol Bordello’s entire raison d’être is cultural cross-pollination, so it’s no surprise that they sing in a variety of languages. Eugene Hutz is of mixed Russian/Roma ancestry and lives in Brazil these days, while his band incorporates musicians from as far afield as Ethiopia, China, and Israel. All in all, they’re a one-band United Nations, and pretty much as multilingual as you get.
As with Eugene Hutz, Regina Spektor first came to the US as a refugee, and like Gogol Bordello, her music first found expression in New York’s East Village. Her Russian/Hebrew heritage often shines through in her songs, both via her lyrics and via the language(s) in which those lyrics are rendered. “Après-Moi,” for instance, quotes both Louis XV and Boris Pasternak, which is something you don’t find your average singer-songwriter doing on a regular basis.
The strange language that Jónsi sings in isn’t necessarily Icelandic – in fact, often it’s not a real language at all. Instead, it’s a weird Tolkien-esque fabrication called Vonlenska, which translates to English as “Hopelandic.” As their career went on, the band incorporated their invention into their songs more and more, either using it exclusively (as for their ( ) album, which uses only Hopelandic throughout) or interspersing it with their native Icelandic to create an exotic linguistic mix that sounds downright otherworldly to English-attuned ears.
Berlin duo Stereo Total have been making a career out of being bilingual for the best part of two decades – they’re one half German and one half French, and their songs divide pretty much equally along linguistic lines, also incorporating English at times. They’re always expanding their horizons, too – their latest album, Baby Ouh!, includes a song in Japanese.
Super Furry Animals
There have been plenty of decent rock bands out of Wales over the years – including, among others, all-time Flavorpill favorite Manic Street Preachers. Very few of them, however, sing in Welsh, perhaps because it’s only spoken in about 20 percent of Welsh households – a shame, because it’s a beautiful-sounding language. A notable exception is enduringly strange and excellent Cardiff five-piece Super Furry Animals, who’ve switched back and forth between English and Welsh over the years – their fourth album, Mwng, was entirely in Welsh, as was their debut EP from way back in 1995, which sported the glorious title Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofod (In Space). “Blerwytirhwng?,” which is embedded above, is taken from the latter, and can also be found on their 2004 best-of compilation Songbook Vol. 1.
For much of the 1990s, the Cavalera brothers would have had a decent shot at challenging Pelé and Ronaldo for the title of World’s Best-Known Brazilians (no giggling at the back, there). Still, although their name comes from Portuguese (it translates as the noun “grave”) and their earliest work encompassed songs in their native tongue, their use of the language since has largely been confined to B-sides and non-album tracks, particularly around the time of Roots – although Max Cavalera did explore more Portuguese-language territory with his post-Sepultura project Soulfly.
A few years back, the NME, bless them, apparently asked Natacha Atlas for an interview, but made it clear that they didn’t “want it to be about the multi-cultural angle.” Atlas, understandably, was less than impressed by having her background casually dismissed as an “angle,” especially given how vital it is to her sound – her music mirrors the name of her first band, Transglobal Underground, encompassing lyrics in English, French, and Arabic, and musical influences from all around the globe. Anyway, her response to the NME was characteristically feisty: “I get sick of it all. A lot of people are treating this as a fad, and it’s bollocks. There are a lot of very talented musicians out there, and it’s not all rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s not all sung in English, and it’s not all for America. So fuck ’em.” Word.
Perhaps the best thing about the Arcade Fire’s Grammy victory earlier this year (apart from this, obviously) is that it involved giving Album of the Year to a band that didn’t actually sing all its songs in English. Admittedly, there’ve been less French lyrics in recent years – on The Suburbs, they were confined to a few couplets at the end of “Empty Room,” whereas on Funeral there were several Régine Chassagne songs entirely in French. But still, they’re the first remotely multilingual winner since, um, Céline Dion in 1997. Maybe one day the Academy will acknowledge the fact that entire albums are actually made in languages that aren’t English, but it’s a start.