Songs in a Foreign Language

For this week I decided to do something a little different. So far I have been writing about things relating to writing, or to my books, or to self-publishing, but when I first started this blog I had the intention to stuff some linguistic content in here as well.

I have on occasion confessed to loving languages and everything associated with them. I can talk for hours about linguistic peculiarities of languages and how they link together, and there are very few languages that I don’t like the sound of.

Which brings me to music. I have plenty of songs that are sung in English, but I also have a good collection of songs in different languages, and I love many of those despite the fact that I might not have a clue what they’re about. And let’s face it, many English lyrics are obscure enough that even though you can hear what they sing, you don’t understand it anyway.

Now I realise that a lot of this is down to taste as well – if you’re a lover of hardcore death metal then you might as well go away now, because you’ll find none here. But if you’re willing to try something new and you like folksy stuff, ska and/or electronic/industrial music, please stick around. I’ll be picking a few songs per language, but I’ll also give some honourable mentions. Links are to Youtube, but don’t expect much in the way of visuals – this is all about the audio.

Contrary to what you might think I won’t start with Dutch, even though that’s my mother tongue. Instead I’m going to start with Finnish, both because that language accounts for the bulk of my foreign music, and because I’m starting with one of my all-time favourite songs:

Suvetar – Gjallarhorn

Categorise this under folk/world music. It starts off fairly tame, but slowly builds into a crescendo, and I love it when the didgeridoo comes in. There are many layers to the sound in this one, and it has an almost hypnotic quality to it. If you like this, it comes from the album Sjofn which is well worth buying. Gjallarhorn are Finnish, though they hail from the native Swedish-speaking part of Finland. The songs on Sjofn are both in Finnish and Swedish, but Suvetar is to me the absolute best.

Haltijan Halussa – Värttinä

You can’t have finnish music and not mention Värttinä. Their back catalogue is vast, and most of it is fantastic. In fact, the hardest thing here was to pick just one song to feature, because I could list at least twenty without effort. This song is from their most recent album, Utu, which I actually think it’s one of their best ever. This is another slow-building song with a crescendo ending (I seem to like those), but I like the really simple beginning which is little more than a guitar and vocals.

Täss’on Nainen – Hedningarna

Hedningarna are actually Swedish, but the two female vocalists here are Finnish, and many of their songs are too. This is another slow-building song, but it takes it just that little bit further. You want moody and hypnotic? This is it. You want eerie wailing instruments? This has it. If you like this I would recommend the album it came from, Trä, which is awesome. I would also recommend Karelia Visa.

Honourable mentions: Veli – Hedningarna, Itkin – Värttinä, or if you’re into male voice choirs, try Susien Teillä by Semmarit. I can also recommend the album Musta by Sanna Kurki-Suonio, who is one of the female vocalists on those Hedningarna songs.

As a language, I love Finnish. It is very vowel-rich and it has a lilting quality to it which makes it very melodic. It is also way-out-there exotic, as it isn’t part of the Indo-European language family. I speak very little Finnish, but I can sing along to each and every song I mentioned above, and most of what I do speak I know from doing just that and eventually getting curious about what I was actually singing.

So, on to the next language: Dutch.

Nooit Meer Slapen – Doe Maar

In my personal opinion there isn’t actually an awful lot of good Dutch  music around, although I’m sure there are plenty of people who will vehemently disagree with me. That said, you cannot mention Dutch music without mentioning Doe Maar. They formed at the back end of the seventies, when punk, ska and reggae were very much in vogue, and I would personally class them as a ska band. They were immensely popular in the Netherlands at the time – think screaming girls throwing underwear on stage and fainting during concerts – and this is what caused their demise at the time: they simply couldn’t handle it. Nooit Meer Slapen is actually a fairly quiet song, but I very much like it for its melancholy quality.

‘t Smidje – Laïs

Laïs are a (Flemish) Belgian folk band. They sing songs in many languages, but most of them are either Dutch (with a very distinct Flemish accent) or French. I would have preferred to show (Houd Uw) Kanneke here, but it appears to be unavailable in Dutch on Youtube, so I picked this rather more cheerful song.

Honourable mentions: Smoorverliefd – Doe Maar, and the aforementioned (Houd Uw) Kanneke if you can find it. I could mention artists like Boudewijn de Groot and Drs P here, but their songs really are ones you need to understand to truly appreciate them.

I cannot comment on Dutch as a language, being a native speaker. I have often wished that I could hear it like a foreigner does, so I could objectively comment on its harshness and guttural sounds – is it really as bad as everyone always says? – but alas, that will never happen.

Very close to Dutch is of course German.

Folge Mir ins Licht – Melotron

It’s a bit tricky to find the correct version of this song; there seem to be quite a lot of overmixed mashups around, but this is by far the best version. I absolutely adore everything about this song. The pacey beat, the haunting melody of the female vocalist, the ‘dun dun’ of the synthesizer, the other synthesizer warbling in the background, and the chorus is gorgeous. If you like this song I can highly recommend the album it comes from, Sternenstaub, which is amazing.

Schwarz – And One

And One are often dubbed the ‘German Depeche Mode’, which is a pretty accurate tag. Most of their songs are in English, but they do have the odd German song. Their songs are often also quite quirky, and Schwarz is a prime example of that.

Honourable mentions: Dein Duft – And One, Immer Noch – Melotron.

I used to hate German, but I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of it over the past fifteen years or so. It’s another language which often gets the tag ‘harsh’ slapped onto it, but to me that just means you can put a lot of feeling into it. There’s nothing quite like shouting ‘Ach, kwatsch!’ at someone when they’re talking nonsense.

Moving north again, we have Swedish.

VargTimmen – Hedningarna

This actually starts in Finnish, but the bulk of the song is Swedish. This is another song from the album Trä, and while on the whole it’s probably a fairly standard popsong, I love the wailing Finnish parts, and the melody appeals to me.

Näcken og Jungfrun – Gjallarhorn

Didgeridoo! (God, that’s got to be one of the most awesome instruments in the history of music.) Lovely upbeat song, another one from the album Sjofn.

Märk Hur Vår Skugga – Mediaeval Baebes

I chanced upon this when I was looking for Mediaeval Baebes stuff, and this is beautiful. A capella until about 1min20 when the medieval instruments kick in. The Baebes are all about harmonies, which suits me fine, because I love harmonies.

Honourable mentions: Tova och Konungen – Gjallarhorn, Räven – Hedningarna. (Give that one a moment, it starts very quietly.)

I like the sound of Swedish, they have interesting pronunciations. I was also pleased to discover that I could understand a fair bit of it (at least in the way of road signage) without ever having learnt a word of it formally.

I think that’s enough of Germanic and Scandinavian languages, so let’s move on to French.

Belle – Laïs

Entirely a capella, and full of beautiful harmonies. Can’t say much more than that.

La Tribu de Dana – Manau

An odd and vaguely haunting combination of rap and celtic-sounding music. I don’t much care for the rappy bits, but the chorus of this song is absolutely lovely.

I don’t really have any honourable mentions here, because I don’t own many French songs. There are of course many renowned chansonniers such as Jaques Brel and Edith Piaf, but while I don’t mind their music, I don’t have it on my playlist. French is a lovely language, but there’s just not a lot of good French music around.

So let’s move on to Spanish.

La Camisa Negra – Juanes

I have no idea who Juanes is, where he is popular and what other songs he’s done, but I love this one. It was on one of the Dance Dance Revolution games, and I must have listened to it a hundred times while trying to master the steps.

This will have to be the lone Spanish song, because I know virtually no others, and none I’d like to share. I will only mention that if you’re looking for French and Spanish songs and the idea of a southern European version of The Pogues appeals to you, you may want to check out Mano Negra. I think their music is referred to as patchanka, and it’s pretty much party music. Quite funky, I just couldn’t find any songs that stood out enough for me to share here.

Let’s move eastwards and go to Russia.

Doschitai do Sta – Tatu

Tatu were pretty popular in western Europe for a while, but mainly with the anglified versions of their songs. Personally I tend to prefer the Russian ones, in part because it gives me the illusion that I still speak Russian a bit.

Katyusha – Ivan Rebroff

I’m mainly including this for sentimental value: I was taught this in university, and Ivan Rebroff is a bit of a legend. I don’t expect anyone to really continue listening to this beyond about thirty seconds.

Honourable mentions: Robot – Tatu.

Last of the European languages I’ll cover here is Greek.

Alcohol is Free – Koza Mostra

Readers across the pond are probably not familiar with the incredibly European phenomenon that is the Eurovision Songfestival. It’s a mega cheesefest of epic proportions which highlights the nepotism between the various European nations, churns out a huge pile of interchangeable power ballads and the odd gem of a song. This is one such gems. It starts off as your average traditional Greek plinky-plonky song, then about thirty seconds in it turns into the most awesome ska ever. It didn’t win, of course, because the best songs never do.

I’m not done yet though, because I’d like to give you a few more songs in dead or non-existent languages.

Adam Lay Ibounden – Mediaeval Baebes

I believe this is an actual Old English song, but if it isn’t then the language definitely is. The Baebes are pretty good, though I can only take them in short bursts or they get a bit samey.

Ecci Mundi Gaudium – Mediaeval Baebes

…She said before putting another MB song down. This is different though, and I wanted a Latin song.

And last but not least, let’s have a song in a language that doesn’t exist.

Nierika – Dead Can Dance

I’m never sure how to describe Dead Can Dance. I think they count as world music, but their stuff is in general just awesome. They have so many different songs in different styles, but one of their main strengths is Lisa Gerrard’s voice. If you’ve ever seen Gladiator, you’ll know her as the wailing woman on the soundtrack. Brendan Perry’s voice is good too, but I prefer the songs with Lisa as the main vocalist, and this one is a beauty. Lisa Gerrard is well-known for singing in what I believe is called idioglossia, which is basically invented language. It isn’t any less beautiful for it.

So, do you have any songs not in English which you really like? Does it matter that you can’t understand it? I’d love to hear from you!


2 thoughts on “Songs in a Foreign Language

  1. tktrian

    Mediaeval Baebes also sing in Swedish?? Whaaa… Well, anyway, this was a cool post! We also listen to lots of non-English music (but barely any sung-in-Finnish music), especially Russian, like Arkona and Alkonost. Folk/trad is perfect for writing something sword-and-sorcery like stuff. We’re big fans of folk metal too (like Ensiferum). One recommendation: Lyriel is a German band with less heavy and more folk-y sound, if that’s more up your alley, check them out! 🙂


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