They say that music is the international language. Sometimes, melodies, tones, and atmospheres that music can create can transcend everything even if the lyrics are in another language.
That’s this week’s Deeper Question, Deeper Cuts fans: What piece of music, song, or even whole album had immediate impact even when delivered in a language that we don’t speak. Here’s what the Trio had to say.
For this question, I’m going to choose Nena’s“99 Luftballons”, a tune that came out in 1983 when everyone was talking about getting blown up in a nuclear war between sabre-rattling super-powers. There’s just something about this song. It’s a punk-pop number with a pretty bold and funkified intro that bucked against pop song immediacy convention, and rocks way hard. Along that way, it instantly communicated the zeitgeist.
The eighties are celebrated today as a cheesy fun era of crazy haircuts and over the top wardrobes. It sort of was that on a superficial level. But living in it every day, there was always some level of panic in our hearts, reflected in a lot of the music of the time. Nuclear holocaust pop was practically a sub-genre! From Prince’s “1999” to Modern English’s “Melt With You” to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”, we were very much aware of where the hands of the doomsday clock were at.
I think it’s because this song is in another language that I, and many other North American radio listeners picked up on its pure emotion without being distracted by its literal meaning. You can hear the absurdity, tragedy, and fear built right into it even if your German is a little rusty or non-existent. Maybe it’s the association with the Berlin Wall, today only recently passing the number of days it had been up when compared with how long it’s been down.
Because it was a (perhaps unlikely) hit, they came out with an English version that doesn’t quite hit the same mark. Maybe because the spell is broken when you concentrate on the words (which are re-written and not a direct translation) and not the impactful emotions you can hear in the performance.
This is a song that delivers a story about how fragile peace is, and how wars start for the most foolish of reasons. It’s the German version, the original, that somehow said it best during a time when we all half-expected to see the sky lit up by descending bombs. And it still has resonance for many of the same reasons today.
I grew up in a guitar house. My dad collects them, I’ve played (badly, but still) since I was little, and I was taught at an early age how to tell guitar players apart by ear. So this one’s got to go to Santana – specifically, his cover of Oye Como Va from 1971. Santana took the classic Tito Puente mambo track, which serves up a slow, groovy energy filled with your standard early 60’s penny whistles, and kicked the whole thing up a notch.
In the hands of Santana and his band, the chill trumpet backing gets upgraded into a wide open space for keyboard and guitar riffs. The whole thing feels vibrant, complex and steeped in Latin musical history. I grew up far away from any semblance of Latin culture, but this track transported me to cities and countries I could only imagine.
Granted, there’s only about two sentences repeated through the track but they HAVE to be in Spanish for the whole thing to make any sense. In live performances, Santana’s backup singers would add a line or two in English, but for my mind it just muddles up the sound. Most of the speaking comes from Santana’s PRS anyway, and the rhythm of the language rounds the whole song out.
I spent my 20s and 30s steeped (or steepled, as the case my be) in Anglican liturgy and worship in the more Catholic end of the tradition.
As part of that I attended a Tenebrae service at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. St. Mary Mags, as it was called, was the place to go if you were an Anglo-Catholic in Toronto. Tenebrae is an evening service sung on the last three nights leading into Holy Week (so the Wednesday night and then the evenings of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday). It’s a solemn, meditative service, the principal ceremony during it is the gradual extinguishing of 15 candles, which gradually plunges the church into darkness. It’s a very moving service that appealed to me on a visceral, theatrical level.
Anyway, part of the Tenebrae service involves singing Psalm 51, a penitential Psalm which begins “Have mercy on me, O God” or in Latin, “Miserere mei, Deus”. And St. Mary Mags’ choir, which is gorgeous, chose to sing Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere for this purpose.
Allegri wrote Miserere in the 1630s and legend has it was never sung outside the Sistene Chapel. As the story goes, we have a 14 year-old Mozart to thank for its proliferation outside the Holy See. Mozart apparently heard the song and transcribed the entire piece in all its complex 10-part harmony (two choirs singing to each other essentially). Oh did we mention that 14 year-old Wolfgang Amadeus did it all from memory?
I didn’t know any of this when I first heard Miserere. I had no knowledge of its history and context. And while I know Psalm 51 in English well enough, I never learned Latin. As a result, my response when I first heard it was to tear up from the raw emotion. There is something about that song that touches me at my core. It’s the way the plainsong suddenly gets this gorgeous harmony and it soars upward, looking for something beyond the ever looming darkness. No piece of music has ever moved me like that since.
So, that’s what we said.
What about you?
Give us your pick in the comments section!