Monday, March 13, 2017

How to sing songs from other cultures more authentically

The other week I wrote about why you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss songs that aren’t in English.

T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

This week I want to consider how you might make songs from other cultures sound more ‘authentic’.

being ‘authentic’

It’s true that you don’t have to be able to speak the language to be able to sing foreign lyrics, but it’s always a good idea to pronounce the words as accurately as you can.

I always tell my singers to assume that someone in the audience will be able to understand the language (no pressure then!).

Many times audience members have come up to me after a concert to say how moved they were that we had chosen to sing a song in the language of their country. In which case we need to respect that language and sing it as well as we can.

Once we did a gig on the Southbank in London. We sang a song from Macedonia called Što mi e milo. Two young women in the audience spoke the language and although they’d never heard the song before, they understood it enough to be able to join in on the repeats.

I posted a video of a scratch choir I created singing a song from Tanzania. It reminded one guy of when his father used to sing the song to him as a child and he was moved to leave a lovely comment.

A group I used to lead did a few performances in old people’s homes. It turned out that one of the residents used to be the British ambassador in Belgrade and spoke fluent Serbo-Croat so he understood several of the songs they sang.

all in the vowel sounds

It’s the vowel sounds that give us away as English speakers. You need to pay a lot of attention to the vowels when singing foreign words. Some will be quite tricky as there is no equivalent in English (e.g. Welsh, Gaelic and Scandinavian languages).

The vowels in many central European and southern African languages are most similar to those known in English as pure vowels. That is, they start with one sound and mouth shape and end the same way. As opposed to diphthongs which are a combination of two pure vowels (e.g. say, toy, etc.).

An example in a song we’ve just done is the Portuguese word ‘continua’. The danger for an English speaker is to sing it as the English word ‘continue’ with an extra ‘a’ on the end. It should be pronounced as CON-TIN-OO-A.

It’s way beyond the scope of this post to cover the singing of vowels in foreign languages. However, one way into it is to get under the skin of a person from the culture the song comes from, no matter how stereotyped or silly it seems. Practice a few random words (e.g. to warm up for an Italian song just say as many different pasta names as you can think of). You can even change your physical posture if it helps. Use your imagination!

Once you’ve found your ‘inner Slav’ or ‘secret Zulu’ you’ll find that the vowels begin to take care of themselves.

The ideal would be to find someone who speaks the language of the song and get them to coach you.

respect the culture

Just because a song is ‘foreign’ doesn’t mean you can take liberties with it. It’s important to respect the cultural origins of a song.

Make sure you do your research to check the lyrics, meaning, context and pronunciation (see Before you use songs from other cultures, check your sources!). A few syllables here and there can change the meaning of a song completely. If a song is a normally sung at funerals, don’t do it as an upbeat dance song. Be respectful.

When in doubt, consult a native speaker.

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Chris Rowbury



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