An enjoyable and fairly painless method of getting to know a language or to glean more about another culture is through music. Whenever I am in a strange place, I listen to local radio and TV stations (focusing on those that stick to the local language and don’t play songs in English), first of all to familiarise myself with the local music scene and hopefully discover artists that I really like. I will then go looking for their material in new and second-hand music stores. If time is short I like to buy at least one various artists compilation CD as a starting point for research and discoveries back home. I do this even though it is easy nowadays to discover music on YouTube, internet radio stations and music streaming services. Compilations are easy to come across, and four- or five-CD boxes of, say, the great French hits of the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s are reasonably cheap nowadays. As far as I am concerned, if I discover even just one singer that I really, really like then the whole exercise of buying the compilation album has been worth it, but usually there are more than one. The trick, then, is to play the music frequently, and try to sing along. It doesn’t matter if you initially don’t understand what you are singing, the main thing is to get to know the words and be able to say the phrases smoothly and with confidence. (It doesn’t matter if you can’t sing, either!) The understanding will come along sooner or later. Everybody loves music, right? And often you don’t need to understand the words literally to know what the song is about. It’s usually love, in either the heartbreak or the happiness guises.
I am surprised at how little music in particular but also other cultural activities are covered in travel articles in newspapers and magazines, although the good travel books usually have a section outlining the greats of each country’s art, music and literature. So much travel writing focuses on food and wine that I sometimes wonder if we are turning into a planet of gluttons, and this focus also makes me uncomfortable, knowing that there are still many people in the world who are starving. I also suspect that many professional travel writers don’t really know much about the cultures of the lands they have visited and are writing about, which is fair enough as this broad knowledge is not something that can be learned easily and quickly.
I would not really expect any traveller in a strange land to go to the theatre and see a play in a language that they don’t understand, but if there is an English language film showing at the cinemas I will go and try to focus on the subtitles in the local language. Books are a useful learning tool. If I know I am going to pursue the language then I will buy a small volume of what looks like fairly simple poetry. With novels, since I don’t really have the time to look up in the dictionary every word I don’t understand, I will buy the local language version of a novel that I know I have in English at home, and then will read the two side by side. And in some languages nowadays you will get the dual text (say, English/French) in the one book anyway. Another good way of picking up vocabulary is to look at the headlines in the local newspapers each day, and to peruse the magazine stands. Bring home a couple of magazines that interest you for further reading. And if I am at an attraction – say a castle or a museum – and there are explanatory pamphlets in English, French, Italian and Spanish (Portuguese and Romanian are harder to find), I will grab one of each to have the translations handy.
In a later post I will look at some Portuguese and English texts side by side, but for now (as a follow-up to my recent post “Great songs in one language and another”) I would just like to mention a couple of musical discoveries I made in Spanish South America. One is La Ley, (The Law) a Grammy Award-winning pop/rock band from Chile described on their Wikipedia entry here as “often considered one of the most influential Spanish rock bands of all-time”. Here is the single Aqui (“Here”) from Uno (One) probably their most successful album from the year 2000, although contrary to what the title suggests, that was not their first album. (The follow-up album from 2003, Libertad, is my personal favourite.)
They have done songs in English too, including an excellent cover version of The Rolling Stones’ Angie, and the song Every Time, which featured on the soundtrack to the film Crazy/Beautiful starring Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez. If you listen to it below I am sure that you will agree that lead singer Beto Cuevas has a beautiful, mellifluous voice.
After the band split up in 2005, Cuevas had a fairly successful career as a soloist, (you can learn more about him here) and I like his work as much as the band’s. Here is his biggest hit Vuelvo or “I Return” (it made No. 1 in Ecuador and Paraguay, No. 3 in Chile, No. 5 in Uruguay, No. 6 in Mexico, No.13 in Argentina and No. 15 in Bolivia, for those who like statistics). In this video he gets bound with rope and slapped around by a fiery redhead, and they play a dangerous game with petrol cans and matches, but the surprising ending is thankfully not as inflammatory as expected.
In the next video, Hablame (Talk to Me), there is great mountain scenery as he pushes a loaded shopping trolley up what look like the Chilean Alps, which is no mean feat. I would not like to be the supermarket employee charged with fetching it back. 🙂
His most recent single, though, Goodbye was a mix of English (well, the word “goodbye”) and Spanish (all the other words). Spanish singer Leire Martínez also features on it. I have only just discovered it and in six minutes it has really grown on me. There is some great cinematography in it. Check it out with this link:
Everyone has their own tastes and interests, of course, and whatever yours are, I wish you happy hunting and great discoveries on your travels. “Goodbye”.
- My Bilingual Summer (thepresentperfect.wordpress.com)
- Spellings and the SMS Syndrome (poulominath.wordpress.com)
- Chapter Four-Lost in Translation? (twoyearsblog.wordpress.com)
- Traveling in a Non-English-Speaking Country: Hints for Success (atlastravelweb.com)
- Great songs in one language and another (myfiveromances.wordpress.com)
- Whatever Helps (byrnepaulj.wordpress.com)
- Learning German Through Music (geekmadel.com)