It’s often said that music is a “universal language,” but it’s easy to forget exactly what that means. There are around 7,000 spoken languages in the world today. Each one can be traced to a culture or nation, and most of those are associated with some form of musical tradition. There are plenty that emulate Western traditions, but many more that don’t.
You don’t have to be a polyglot to appreciate music in a different tongue. For this playlist, our curators are celebrating foreign-language music that enchants them (even if they don’t always understand the lyrics).
This recording by Kenyan group Orchestra Super Mazembe makes me so happy. It’s super upbeat, the guitar riff is infectious, the vocals are golden and you can hear everyone having fun. It’s like a smile in song.
Even though I’m half Mexican and my mom played me a ton of music with Spanish lyrics, it was still my mom’s music. The first Spanish-language song that moved me was sung by actor Harry Dean Stanton for the Paris, Texas soundtrack. It’s a cover of an old standard, but Stanton put so much emotion into this performance, it makes me wish he had recorded more music.
The biggest hit by Iranian psychedelic rock musician Kourosh Yaghmaei, “Gole Yakh” is a weeping ballad backed by insistent drums and embellished by his plaintive guitar. You definitely don’t need to understand it to feel all the feels.
A beautiful adaptation of this Sephardic religious song.
Rubén Blades wrote this song for Lavoe, and the poignant, biographical lyrics are some of the most heartfelt in Lavoe’s deep repertoire. The triple whammy of Colón producing and arranging elevates this song to the top shelf.
I can’t understand a word, but the track speaks for itself.
A lighthearted sound with powerful lyrics about the difficulties of living without documents along the Tex-Mex border.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn a foreign language without all that learning, just make up your own language. That’s what Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins did for seven consecutive albums! Sure, the title of “Carolyn’s Fingers” is clearly in English. But it sounds like Fraser is singing in some long-lost hybrid of dolphin and Atlantean dialect. The song is often dismissed by witty British music journalists as “ethereal gibberish,” but there’s the more realistic possibility that Fraser realized how her partner Robin Guthrie’s music was too gorgeous for any human language to match. If you listen closely to Fraser’s made-up words, every alien phrase she sings fits the otherworldly instrumentation perfectly.
An elder statesman of French songwriting, Brassens was a prolific poet with a knack for setting words to catchy melodies. With his quick wit, black humour and thick southern French accent, Brassens combined wistful nostalgia with biting social and political commentary.
There is no more highly regarded star in the Arabic world than Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. This stellar piece was composed by her longtime collaborators, poet Ahmed Rami and composer Riad Al-Soumbati, and is a great entry point into this shining star’s catalog. It showcases her perfect pitch and incredible ability to navigate the most complex aspects of Arabic melody.
Jorge Ben was my gateway into Brazilian music, and for that reason, his music always reminds me of a certain time in my life. Even though I don’t understand a word of Portuguese, I am able to fully immerse myself in this song thanks to Ben Jor’s exquisite songwriting and those sunny string arrangements.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Shin Joong Hyun started his career playing on US army bases in post-Korean War Seoul. He later became known as the “Godfather of Korean Rock.” Of the many songs he penned and arranged for countless singers, this one is my favorite. Though first sung by the Pearl Sisters in 1968, this seven minute version is essential — a soulful psychedelic rock ballad, sung by Kim Sun and appearing on the 1969 debut album of Kim Choo Ja, who later became one of the most popular singers in 1970s Korea. Although finding Hyun’s original albums can be extremely difficult (not to mention expensive), Light in the Attic Records released a great introductory collection of his music in 2011.