Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Soul of Bilingual Music

I haven't published in a while .... life kind of took over .... but I was moved to come back to my blog when a friend suggested I translate a beautiful Neapolitan love song into English.

It reminded me of an article I wrote several years ago, originally for publication in Cuerpo magazine -- which then went out of business. Then it was going to be picked up somewhere else ... and that magazine never even made it to the first issue. At any rate, the article never got published, but it's still one of the favorite pieces I've ever written.

So I'm sharing it here, in response to my friend. This is why I could never translate that beautiful song into English; it would lose its soul.

The Soul of Bilingual Music

© 2007 Ruth Kunstadter

Fresh from jury duty, and still wearing the “good clothes” she had put on for the occasion after channeling her Mexican-Nicaraguan mother’s voice (“Si te vas a la corte y te vas a presentar ante el juez...”), bilingual/bicultural singer-songwriter Michele Greene takes a few minutes to explore how her Latina and her Anglo sides express themselves differently in her music. With the release of “Luna Roja,” her second bilingual CD, Michele adds to the growing trend on the national scene toward music that moves seamlessly between English and Spanish – a sofrito of language and cultures that most Latino families in the United States live every day, and that is carving its own path onto radio stations across the country.

Like most people who are bilingual and bicultural, Michele has experienced the sense of being a different person in one language than in another. She speaks both Spanish and English fluently, but she knows that language is about more than just words; it affects everything about the way we connect to the world around us. We can have a different personality, a different body language, a different view of the world. We can have a different spirituality and even a different soul.

Think about it – what language does your soul speak? English? Spanish? Both? Or perhaps something else entirely? Who are you in each language? What does your soul want to express – is it different depending on the language? Many bilingual musicians experience this duality of soul and take it one step further, expressing both sides in their music.

Every song has a soul

Songwriting is ultimately a storytelling process, and for the story to ring true – whether or not one has lived it – the artist must speak from the soul. The bilingual songwriter has two souls to choose from. And often, the music will be very different in each.

Just as each language has its own soul, every song has a soul unique to the language in which it is written. It’s easy to test this out: try singing “Bésame mucho” to yourself in English. Not only is the smoldering sensuality of the song completely lost – it sounds like something out of a bad movie. What about “Nosotros?” How can the one-syllable “We” ever fit that melody and inspire the same sentiment as that classic bolero?

“Certain songs can only be written in Spanish,” agrees Michele Greene. “Spanish has a poetry and a musicality to it that English doesn’t have. It flows rhythmically.” Michele speaks from experience. After her Oklahoma-born father passed away when she was very young, Michele was raised by her Mexican-Nicaraguan mother and her mother’s side of the family. Her mother was a singer in a trio, and Michele grew up listening to Trio Los Panchos, Agustin Lara, and other classic artists from the golden age of boleros.

Michele considers how the duality of her bilingual soul is reflected in her music. “My voice as a writer is more emotional in Spanish,” she says. “In English, it’s more removed and more ironic; it has more of an analytical edge.” In essence, Michele writes from the heart in Spanish, and from the mind in English.

“There are some songs that you can do in both languages,” notes Michele. But they are few and far between. And that is why the typical “crossover” that record industries have tried for years – releasing the same album in both English and Spanish – often falls flat. “You can’t just turn a switch and change the song from Spanish to English,” she says. In doing so, the song can lose its soul.

In English and Spanish lyrics, not only is the language itself different, but so are the parameters of what is considered culturally appropriate to express. Songs in Spanish – just like daily conversations in Spanish – are much more likely to delve deep into topics such as desire, passion, longing, and pain. Michele Greene agrees: “Spanish has a depth of sentiment that just doesn’t come across in English.”

As someone from a mixed Latino/Anglo heritage, and a traveler who has experienced many cultures as well, Michele is careful to point out that Latinos are not the only ones with feelings and sentiments: “It’s not that the emotions are different from one language to another, but how you access it and express it that’s different. You have more freedom in Spanish.”

Trying to express some of that passion and emotion in English can sometimes pose a problem. “With some of the classic boleros, if you tried a direct translation, you’d sound like you are a stalker,” laughs Michele.

Blasting through linguistic and cultural boundaries

Bilingual musicians are able to fuse the poetic force of Spanish with the other musical and cultural traditions that helped form their artistic self. They cross linguistic and musical boundaries with the same ease in which they move from Spanish to English and back again – sometimes within the same song.

Not limited to any one genre, bilingual artists blast through linguistic, cultural, and pre-packaged musical expectations as if they didn’t exist. Los Lonely Boys’ bilingual “Heaven” raced up both the mainstream and the country charts, and they were featured performers on both the 2004 Latin Grammy’s and the 2005 Grammy’s. Daddy Yankee’s Spanish-language “Gasolina” topped hit charts around the country.

These artists are not part of the so-called “Latin Boom” or any crossover marketing ploy. Instead, they are at the forefront of a more alternative, organic trend in music to write songs not in a specific language for one designated “market”, but rather in the language that each song calls for – the language that sounds best for that particular phrase or song.

And perhaps that is the secret to their success - the honesty in their music. While Shakira can put out an album in English and have Top 40 success here, anyone who has listened to her in Spanish can see which songs have more alma. She sounds almost diluted in English, the intricacies of her unique voice and lyrics losing much of the power she projects in Spanish.

Honoring both sides of the bilingual soul

Patricia Vonne, whose bilingual “Texas influenced roots rock with a Spanish flavor” has gained her fans around the world, knows the power of reaching an audience in Spanish – even if they don’t understand the words. “Spanish infuses more of a romantic element through the music and speaks to the audience in a unique way,” notes Patricia. “It speaks to the heart.”

Patricia’s bilingual and bicultural heritage creates an eclectic mix that is familiar to anyone who has lived in (and between) two languages and two cultures. Her three CD’s, including the just released Firebird, reflect both sides of her heritage. When she sings in Spanish, you hear the roots of her Spanish mother and Mexican father informing every chord and phrase. In English, her South Texas upbringing in a family of ten children bursts through.

Like Los Lonely Boys and other barrier-breaking musicians, Patricia Vonne’s music can’t be pigeonholed into any one market – and that is just the way she likes it. “I believe the diversity in my music offers something for everyone – from rockin' road house to Spanish spitfire. That culmination of sound is who I am.”

Someone else who can’t be pigeonholed in any way is Michele Greene – who you may remember as Abby Perkins from the TV series “LA Law.” Michele is proud of both her cultures. Not only did she release her second bilingual CD last year, she also has an archival country recording in the works, celebrating the musical heritage of her father’s side of the family. (The Trio Los Panchos records traded places on the living-room stereo with “American roots music.”). Michele can’t completely split her Latina side from her Anglo side, though. “In one song we’re doing, I keep hearing a marimba – I know I’m going to have to put a marimba in there somewhere,” she says with a smile. Y por si fuera poco, the multi-talented and multi-faceted Michele also just published her first novel: Chasing the Jaguar (HarperCollins) ¬– a Nancy Drew detective-type story with a bilingual/bicultural heroine.

The future of bilingual music

What does the future hold for today’s bilingual artists? It is not an easy road for any artist whose music can’t be easily described in a one-word package. Major record companies and radio stations want an easy fit for a specific market. But musicians across the country are staying true to their bilingual and bicultural heritage, breaking cultural, linguistic and musical boundaries in the process. And they are bringing their music to the national stage, often through independent production companies and grass-roots support.

Only time will tell if this “bilingual boom” will go the same way as the highly touted Latin Boom and run its course, or if it will take hold and grow, embraced by the 40 million bilingual Latinos in this country who live each day in Spanish and in English, and by the millions of non-Latinos who feel that same depth of emotion that Spanish provides – but just need to find a way to bring it out.


Anonymous said...
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KUFA said...

Great article, I am a bilingual artist myself, and its comforting to read thoughts that often run thru my head. A+

Ruth Kunstadter said...

thanks, kufa .... I just checked out your music and really liked it .... i'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this subject!!!