“Quizas Quizas” or “Perhaps Perhaps”: Lost In Transition?

Back in 1985, Gloria Estefan and her group Miami Sound Machine released a single called “Conga”. US music industry ‘experts’ dismissed it as “Too Latin for the Americans , too American for the Latins” and its prospects of becoming a hit as remote.  They were wrong on all counts. It got to No.10 in the Billboard Hot 100. Since then the Cuban-born, Miami-bred singer has sold 90 million albums worldwide, including 26.5 million in the USA. The title track of her first Spanish-language recording “Mi Tierra” (1993) subsequently reached No 1 in  the US ‘Hot Latin Charts”. She is now considered as one of the most successful Latin ‘crossover’ performers so far and as having paved the way for the ‘Hispanic Wave’ of the ‘90’s.  Ricky Martin’s “Livin La Vida Loca” was followed by Carlos Santana’s ” Smooth” and then most significantly of all, Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailamos” (“Let’s Dance”), which topped the Billboard listings.

At the time , this was regarded as a significant breakthrough for Latin musicians into the US pop market, even though his father Julio had already achieved global fame by singing in English as well as French, Portuguese, German and his native Spanish. Marc Anthony (Puerto Rican parents), Paulina Rubio & Thalia (Mexico), Juan Luis Guerra (Dominican Republic) and especially Colombia’s Shakira are among the many Latino artistes who have acquired ‘star status’ in the USA and beyond – but have simultaneously been accused by some ‘purists’ of having sold out to the US dollar and cast aside their roots.  For precisely this reason, many of Shakira’s loyal Latino fans were not at all happy when she released her first English-language album “Laundry Service” (2001), in which she was  described by ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine as sounding “downright silly” and her magic as having been “lost in translation”. This criticism didn’t appear to adversely affect sales – 20 million copies were bought world-wide in 2002 – or deter her from recording again in English. Her 2006 single ‘Hips Don’t Lie” (Las Caderas No Mienten) was No.1 on the US  Billboard Hot 100 and in more than 55 other countries.  Her next album is due out in September 2009 and will apparently replicate the ‘dual linguistic strategy’ of ‘Oral Fixation’ / ‘Fijacion Oral’ (2005).

By contrast, Colombian rock singer ‘Juanes’ reputedly prefers (according to ‘USA Today’ magazine) his native tongue as a creative vehicle: “I like to write in Spanish so I can project my feelings. I don’t think or dream in English”. The ‘Crossover Musicians’ do, though, also have their defenders among (for example) second-generation Mexican-Americans on the basis that “In the US there are lots of Latinos very much into their culture but who no longer speak Spanish” . A valid point in a country where the Hispanic community will comprise 29% (128 million) of the population by 2050. Some Latin singers have even gone in the opposite direction. Eydie Gorme performed exclusively in English until she combined for a series of discs in the mid-‘60’s with Mexico’s renowned ‘Trio Los Panchos’. Similarly,Jennifer Lopez, who in 2007 completed her ‘special project’:  An album in Spanish titled “Como Ama Una Mujer” (How A Woman Loves), produced  jointly by husband Marc Anthony and Colombian singer / songwriter ‘Estefano’. The legendary (non-Latin) Nat King Cole recorded three collections of traditional Latin-American melodies between 1958 and 1962, all especially notable for their ‘lush, romantic, baritone arrangements’ and his distinctive North-American accent. He didn’t speak Spanish, so had to memorize the lyrics phonetically.

The debate about trends in international rock and pop is not confined exclusively to music of Latin American and Iberian derivation. In the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest 2009 , nineteen of the twenty-five entries were  performed  totally or partly in English – including the winner, Norway’s “Fairytale” by Alexander Rybak. Last year, Russia took first place with “Believe” and France’s representative, Sebastien Tellier, infuriated several of his country’s MPs by singing in English. He did so, he explained, so his audience could understand French people’s “vision of life”. The Contest’s organisers have attempted (from 1966-1972 and again from 1978-1998) to impose rules requiring the use of a national language but then lifted the restrictions completely as from 1999. When ‘Abba’ sang “Waterloo” in Swedish in their national song contest, they lost. The following year (1974), they performed the English version at the Eurovision finals – and won. Statistics confirm that songs performed (mostly) in English do better in the competition: 23 victories to date compared to 14 in French. This has not, though, usually worked to the benefit of the UK. It’s last Eurovision triumph was back in 1997 (Katrina and The Waves), it came bottom in 2008 but improved to fifth this year.

For similar commercial reasons, the most popular Spanish and Latin-American themes have since the late ‘50’s invariably inspired English-language interpretations. ‘Besame Mucho’ (composed in 1940 by Consuelo Velazquez, a fifteen-year old Mexican girl) became “Kiss Me A Lot”, which perhaps does not have quite the same resonance. It has featured on the soundtrack of numerous films, including ‘Great Expectations’ and the ‘Mona Lisa Smile’. The Beatles’ version of the song , taped in Hamburg (1962) with Pete Best on drums, later formed part of their ‘Anthology 1′ compilation (1995).  “Quien Sera”, a mambo written (1953) by Mexican bandleader Pablo Beltran Ruiz, was transmuted into “Sway”. Dean Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Britain’s Cliff Richard ( among many others) subsequently incorporated it into their repertoires.  Spanish composer Sebastian Iradier’s “La Paloma” dates back even further, to 1863. There’s no official tally as to how often it has been recorded ( by Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf, Nana Mouskouri , Luciano Pavarotti and a long line of performers) but is believed to easily surpass the figure of 1,600 attributed to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in the Guinness Book Of Records. The anglicised lyrics, though, may not be to everyone’s taste: “Si a tu ventana llega una paloma. tratala con carino, que es mi persona” evolved into  “My dear, la paloma sings in the tree above. He sings with his sweetheart softly the songs of love”.

Likewise, many Latin Music enthusiasts prefer “Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crecen las palmas” (Guantanamera: Joseito Fernandez. Cuba 1929) to Pete Seeger’s adaptation ” I am a truthful man from this land of palm trees” and even more so the folkloric refrain of ‘The Cockroach’, a Mexican ‘ranchero’ which started out as a Spanish ‘corrido’: “La Cucaracha, la cucaracha, Ya no quieres caminar (Doesn’t want to travel on), Porque no tienes (Because she hasn’t), Porque le falta (Oh no, she hasn’t), Marihuana que fumar (Marihuana for to smoke). It’s a matter of opinion, of course, whether the poetry, cadences and authentic revolutionary invocations have survived the transition into English. The same judgement can apply equally the other way round: “Yesterday”  transcribes as “El Ayer”: “Now I need a place to hide away (Hoy yo busco desaparecer), Oh I believe in Yesterday” (Quisiera estar en el Ayer). Not bad, but not exactly Lennon-McCartney either.





Filed under: Music & Dance | Posted on July 3rd, 2009 by Colin D Gordon

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