I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about music today. Specifically, I’ve been wondering whether it’s true that music can transcend cultural boundaries. You can go ahead and blame YouTube for this — I’ve been watching music videos in languages I don’t understand for the past two hours, and I’ve probably got at least another hour in me before I get bored and move on to something else.
What got me started was this video featuring Emmanuel Uwechue. You’d be hard pressed to find a more incongruous pop star. Uwechue is a Nigerian living in China who sings Mandarin songs under the stage name 郝歌 (Hao Ge — sounds like “Good Song.”) Take a listen:
The thing that gets me about Hao Ge is that even though he’s singing in Mandarin, he doesn’t sound like he’s singing in Mandarin. There’s a disconnect between the words and the delivery — in his hands, this Mandopop love song has an R&B vibe that feels out of place. And I love it.
* * *
When we first moved to Singapore, Chef Boyardee and I often took the girls to Little India for dinner. They would be so engrossed in the Bollywood dance numbers on the TV in the corner, they’d barely remember to eat.
Once I noticed Younger Daughter bobbing her head to the music and wondered if she realized the lyrics weren’t English, or if she was too mesmerized by the acres of undulating flesh onscreen to even notice.
Me: What are they singing?
YD: I don’t know, but it sounds pretty.
Me: It sounds pretty, or it looks pretty?
YD (stuffing a piece of naan into her mouth): Yeah.
Now I like Aishwarya Rai and Emraan Hashmi as much as the next person, yet my iPod is utterly devoid of Hindi music. I like it in small doses, I just don’t want to listen to it all the time. I used to think this was because I don’t understand the words, but that can’t be it: I remember lustily belting out “99 Luftballons” in high school without worrying about my lack of German. A quick scroll through my iPod also turns up a few outliers in Spanish (“Manos al Aire”), and French (“Savoir Aimer,” “De Temps en Temps”), plus about a million Bob Marley tunes (I can only understand about ¾ of what he sings, but he’s one of my favourite artists.)
Like many aspects of culture, musical styles are internalized at a young age and become the norm. Moving to another culture exposes us to a new set of norms, and it sometimes takes a while to move past the initial strangeness and learn to appreciate the beauty of an unfamiliar style. Would I love Bollywood music if I lived in India? Maybe. But I lived in Singapore for three years, and never developed a fondness for Chinese music. The exception was a folk song called康定情歌 (“Kang Ding Love Song”), which I even had as my ringtone for a while. But since Chinese singers prefer a more traditional delivery, which sounds harsh to my ears, my favourite version of this song is actually performed by a Swedish singer.
(You can forward to about the one-minute mark and skip all the introductions.)
So on the basis of this unscientific study,* I’ve concluded that a familiar style of delivery trumps language when it comes to musical preferences. Maybe that’s why I like this cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” so much. I’ll leave you to enjoy it while I log onto iTunes and add some Japanese to my playlist. (You can download the mp3 here.)
* Statistically insignificant due to sample size of 1.
Can anyone translate the title of Hao Ge’s song, 有多少爱可以重来? I think it’s something like How Much Can I Love Again? (Not a very elegant translation!) Google Translate was as helpful as you’d expect. Anyone?