In the quest for compelling new music, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself bored. It inevitably happens. I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in front of my CD shelves, or perused my digital collection, looking at thousands and thousands of songs and thought to myself, “I don’t want to listen to any of this.”
It’s hard to figure, but eventually it led me to finding music from other cultures, and more specifically, music in other languages. It’s a strange idea, listening to music in a foreign tongue. I’m one of those people with absolutely zero affinity for language. I’ve studied four, not counting English, and can read, write and speak exactly zero. My family smoothly moves in and out of English, and I have only the faintest grasp of what they’re saying. Yet I love some of the music I’ve discovered that are performed in tongues I’ll never understand.
I used to not bother — my thinking was, music in another language would be the equivalent of watching a foreign film… without the subtitles. But there is a beautiful mystery to it. The obvious, immediate appeal is the music, the instrumental arrangement, which is frequently very different from what I’m used to. Yet I also find myself riveted to the vocals - in some cases, even singing along - taking the “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” concept to the nth degree.
Anyway, to make a short story long, here is my list of songs that I love… and I have absolutely no idea what they’re saying.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - A native of Pakistan and a master of Qawwali music, Nusrat had one of the most captivating voices I’ve ever heard. Here’s “Intoxicated.”
Bebel Gilberto - Brazilian singer of incredible grace and sensuality, Bebel is not to be missed. As an added bonus, she does have some songs in English - but I love this one, “Momento.”
Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band - Zydeco is one of those genres that makes you immediately grin and start stomping your feet. It’s perfect party music. Here’s “Rosa Majeur.”
CéU - OK, so clearly I have a thing for female Brazilian singers. But seriously, she’s incredible. This is “Malemolencia.”
Federico Aubele - So, there’s a guy who decided to start mixing dub, ambient, hip hop beats with some tango (among others) thrown in for good measure. Hailing from Argentina, Federico Aubele is the definition of “genre-bending.” Here’s “Postales.”
Diam’s — I can’t say I ever expected to get really into a female French hip hop artist, but… that’s before I came across Diam’s. She’s hard hitting with some sweet beats and solid production. She’s won a number of awards in Europe, deservedly so. Here’s “Ma France a Moi.”
Panjabi MC - Indian hip hop? Fuck yes. With some Knight Rider thrown in for good measure, here’s “Mundian To Bach Ke (Knight Rider Remix).”
In honor of my homeland, we’ll close out with some South African artists:
Most people are already familiar with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. If you’re not, you should be (and not just their “Graceland” stuff). They probably have the greatest sense of timing and harmony you’re likely to see.
Here they are again with South African diva and vocalist extraordinaire Miriam Makeba, as well as a little of the trumpet great Hugh Masekela (please ignore Paul Simon). This is “N’Kosi Sikelel’ Africa,” the South African national anthem (which used to be a song of resistance and the anthem of the ANC back in the Apartheid years), a song that always has and always will make me cry a little. The lyrics are in Xhosa.
Finally, to completely change gears, here is Zola, a hip hop, “Kwaito” performer best known for his work on the Tsotsi soundtrack. This is the new blood music of townships and urban South Africa. The lyrics are mostly in Zulu. This is “Mdlwembe.” Feel free to shake your ass.
I know this doesn’t even crack the surface — it’s a sampling of what I like, but a drop in the ocean of international music. So any and all recommendations, from near and far are, as always, very welcome.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.