Fira’s essay for the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Music transcends language barriers in unique ways. Even if you don’t understand a song’s language, you can still be hit with sentiments very close to home. You might also notice things like musical styles or sounds that were sampled from our own backyards, then infused with local flavour, and feel a sense of pride mixed with a little envy. Key to that flavour is language. When music is sung in a foreign language, the only thing stopping you from enjoying it is your heartfelt prejudice.
A strange sense of familiarity hits us hard, as we suddenly get reminded that on a different continent, in another city, right now in a time zone 12 hours apart, there are people living their lives just like us. People with the same dreams and struggles, very similar city influences, the same taste in fashion, yet very different cultures. This sentiment can reach us across time as well – the Latin chants in Mozart’s Requiem, composed late 1791, confront our feelings with a dire sense of urgency.
Music is one of the bridges that can connect two people speaking different languages, from different cultures, with universal joy and heartfelt emotion.
It rouses us to want to know the singer’s actual words, yet it seems that we already know what they are trying to say. In this echo chamber that is an interconnected Earth, music travels from one side to the other with the speed of one upload, held back only by latency and VPN issues. This is pleasant, considering that throughout history music has always been travelling the world. Today, its transmission has just moved on from naval voyages to the Internet’s undersea cables.
This relationship between language and music tells fascinating stories. It reveals intimate relationships, cultural exchanges, and human affairs between people from different countries.
Like how St Jerome translated the Bible to Latin for Rome in the 4th century – something which he could do because he was exceptionally fluent in Hebrew, Greek and Latin – translators are finding hot new opportunities in translating globally popular songs with foreign lyrics to English, so that the rest of the world can enjoy its meaning. From the bosom of alluring Korean and Japanese music, well produced as they are, springs a rising interest in learning these languages – at least to a level where they make cute gestures.
Of course, it is a little naïve to assume that passion for foreign music alone can push a person to be disciplined enough take a language. After all, mastering a language, even for a native, is no easy feat. They are really after new opportunities. As a translator or tutor in an emerging market, being one of the few to be familiar with a foreign language that the country they work in is interested in makes them valuable assets.
Local Japanese girl groups like Juice Juice or ℃-ute may continue producing hit singles exclusively in Japanese, but the professionally done English translations in their music videos is clearly meant for a global audience to connect. There is also various incarnations of Colour Coded Lyrics providing translations to English and Romaji, as well as an entire market niche of videos from independent creators on YouTube providing translated lyric versions of songs.
Language is a distinct and crucial part of song lines in music. Even if the music is purely an instrumental, language would have been needed to communicate its motifs, refine instruments, hold ceremonies, and pass down musical tradition. The joy of music has no language barrier, but songs are always full of language. There is always a mark bearing singer’s identity, and thus their birthplace. You can tell which oyster this pearl came from. People are able to sing to themselves lyrics they don’t even understand, full of bliss, and yet be blissfully aware of where this music came from.
The pleasure is satisfying, like having a taste of cultural cuisine that you end up loving, guilty yet sacrosanct. Because this is what foreign music is, a delicacy for the soul, rich in exotic and exciting new flavours, yet oddly familiar. Culture is far more difficult to cultivate in a nation than economic growth, and it begins with music.
We humans inject our own languages, and thus ourselves, into music.
That is what makes it music.
A song that explodes into a global phenomenon will find itself recorded in covers all over the world in many different languages. There is one song that has been sung in every language in the world, in public spaces and private occasions, yet it has retained that same familiar melody. You already know how to sing it in English and your native tongue. It is the most celebrated song in the world – Happy Birthday.
No other song in the world has ascended to the kind of ubiquitous joy that comes out of such a simple melody. To humanity, Happy Birthday is an ode to a person’s coming of age, a blessing for his life ahead, a grateful gesture for the years he’s lived in good health, and a measure of how much he, as a person or as an icon, is valued by others.
What is truly magical about Happy Birthday is that, not only could you recognise it anywhere. It seamlessly takes on the colour of any language in the world. There is no aura of mystery, mixed emotions, or hidden meaning. You know exactly what’s going on – there is a lucky boy or girl somewhere on the receiving end of that tune and a fine ceremony. When it comes to this song, things like fear of singing or bad singing don’t even register in the heads of people who usually refuse to sing.
True perfection in all things is no longer known or prized – you must write music that is either so simple a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that audiences like it simply because no sane person could understand it.
― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Nobody has felt that Happy Birthday is something they could not sing.
As such, it will remain a timeless global phenomenon.
The Roots Of Upbringing
Language is the key to cultural diversity in music.
For good times, creators let go of language altogether and simply come up with musically pleasant gibberish. They don’t mean anything but good vibes, or to put it more precisely, good memes. It’s really just a sup from their neighbourhood. Naturally, this is becoming somewhat of a running gag in the rap industry. But good memes don’t just sprout out of nowhere on the Internet. They are the top kek products of culture.
In 2013, YLVIS came up with What Does the Fox Say? a viral music video that poked fun at the “ancient mystery” of what noises a fox was supposed to make as opposed to a cow or duck. A very flagrant play on kids’ farm songs, infantile in nature but deeply rooted in our culture. To fully understand the memes here you absolutely needed to experience the childhood where you would’ve been exposed to nursery rhymes.
In 2016, Daimaou Kosaka had the completely legit artist and musical genius Pikotaro, absolutely real person by the way, to come up with the legendary Pen Pineapple Apple Pen. People loved it so much they totally did not try to create a game called Super Pineapple Pen where you had to kill fruits obsessed with singing the song. To fully appreciate the beauty of the absolute retarded nature of this song, you only would have needed to understand the meaning of three words: pen, apple, pineapple!
Wherever they speak or sing in English, the singer’s culture will always follow. You can easily identify Russian, Irish, Jamaican, or Chinese accents following their voices – skin colour notwithstanding. As children, they grew up with both their native languages and English. We get to enjoy the different flavours of English in lots of songs thanks to cultural diversity across the world. Every single language we let die, kills off an accent that would’ve added more style, colour, humour, more…joy to the music of the human race.
Even American or British rappers can be distinguished from each other the moment they take the mic, from the unique lexicons in their vocabulary to their accent. Furthermore, American rappers, spitting verses in American English, each bear a unique style native to their city, their upbringing, and thus the source of their pride. In a foreign country, people get to identify each other with the style of English they speak – right down to the district.
A national orchestra is the crown jewel of a nation’s music pedagogy, housing a repertoire of the country’s triumphs and ceremonies. What separates one country’s orchestra, and thus the countries themselves, from another is their cultural heritage. As the SCM Symphony Orchestra plays alongside a man who plays a Digeridoo solo at the Verbrugghen Hall in Sydney, it elevates Australia’s indigenous music from just being a cute street performance into a national treasure actually celebrated by the nation.
Religion & Ascension
Language is key when a composing music for the faithful.
A piece of music with ecclesiastical Latin chants evokes Christian foreboding in an instant. Latin is a classical language with such a close history to the Church, with a vast repertoire of music from Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere to Mozart’s liturgical Requiem, that it’s hard to imagine anything but Christian allegory when we hear something similar. The only thing more impactful in its symbolism than Latin in Christianity is the ✝ cross, that people of faith seem to instinctively pull in the face of primal fear or proof of devotion.
As such, even as we use modern languages for communication, Latin will continue to thrive beyond medieval times because it is a language sacred to Christianity, as Arabic is to Islam. Religious scholars make it an utmost priority to be able to understand hymns. Devout Christians will continue to create lyric poetry, plays and literature in Latin, and thus bring themselves closer to God’s mercy.
Once embedded into song and powerful religion, language never leaves our living memory.
Video games, set in an entirely different worlds, needs only to bundle Latin-esqe chants with samples of epic music in its OST, as observed in The Prophet’s Ascension from EA’s Command & Conquer 4 or Ghetsis in Pokémon Black & White, as well as like dozens of tracks from other popular franchises, to evoke the classic feeling of a historical clergy or religious fervour. It will always feel like we are being confronted with an elegy from the ghosts of the medieval Church from centuries past.
Because music is such a powerfully evocative medium of expression, listeners will still be able to feel sentiments coming out of a song. However, without understanding the language, the empathy risks being misguided, and they will never be able to fully appreciate it. They’re forced to take cues from everywhere but the words to interpret possible meanings.
Take the entire vocal soundtrack from NieR:Automata, such as Forest Kingdom or Beautiful Song. They are sung in what the game’s composers called “Chaos Language”, completely fictional and officially non-existent in our world. Yet, upon listening to these songs, we can easily pick up the signature sounds of languages from cultures we are familiar with – Latin foreboding, tribal war chants, and French intrigue.
Because we are so used to these cultures, we catch on to the song’s mood fairly quickly. We get to enjoy fruits of culture that have been cultivated over centuries in the form of pleasant and epic songs, to feel joyful and epic, while killing machines in this game. It is a pleasure we take for granted.
Spirituality & Sensuality
What draws in a listener to music from distant lands are, first and foremost, alluring faces and charming voices. It’s not always meant to be titillating, but there is always some kind of sensual feeling involved. Under the guise of appreciating art, music lets us get away with indulging in guilty pleasures we would otherwise be hesitant to proclaim so boldly. Not even thought crimes, just guilty pleasure.
Language is key when singers want to tell us what spiritual ascension means to them.
Take the song Ya Sahra, performed by Turkish folk ensemble Light In Babylon. From the onset, it is a spiritually immersive piece of music with words that are felt rather than understood. The barrier is as much language as it is an understanding of Istanbul and Jewish culture, because even translated the lyrics remain shrouded in mystery, as if the singer has a relationship with the guardian spirits of the desert.
Take the beautifully produced Аманат from Kazakh band Hassak, which is full of musically intriguing voices, instruments, and spiritual meaning. There is something intensely satisfying about the guttural throat singing, the collection of intricate, gleaming outfits on the performers, the Turkic language, and the way they all come together to create a cool performance, laden with such power and intrigue. All to awaken a sleeping warrior. With Аманат, you are witnessing real folklore, right from the heart of Central Asia.
Take the heavily Westernized musical bubblegum trap antics of Kazakh boy band Ninety One, whose nationality we were able to identify solely because of language. Even their looks (complete with dreadlocks) and lovely bad boy personalities are hard to tell, much less their music or rap styles (prrr prrr adlib included), which could have literally blended in with BTS in K-Pop’s Mnet chart if only the language wasn’t so blatantly different from Korean. But this time, the K-Pop is Kazakh pop, or as the youth of Kazakhstan spells it, Q-Pop (Qazaq pop).
From Ah!Ya!Mah! to E.Yeah, these boys have distinguished themselves as performers of a refreshing blend of hip hop, bubblegum pop, and contemporary art – no doubt the almost absolute favourite genre of the world’s Wi-Fi loving youth. However, despite their faces, this boy band is most definitely Kazakh – the very name Ninety One is meant to represent Kazakhstan’s Independence Day on December 1991.
Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
― Ludwig van Beethoven
Because music travels the world often, we get to see young music makers from many countries far outside from where Hip Hop or Trap music originated adopt these hot genres almost faster than the news. Language then becomes key for when they want to refine these imported musical goodies into something their family, friends and classmates can enjoy.
Home & Family
Language is extremely crucial to a sense of belonging.
It is literally impossible to describe the beauty of a land and its people without the flowery vocabulary of its native language. Language describes home and family in ways that is crucial for melody to able to catch up, because music by itself too high up there to act as a down to earth travel guide.
You would have to scramble to figure out from which part of the world this song came from, but thanks to lyrics all it takes is to identify who they are is by the language they’re speaking in. Being able to seamlessly include poetry into song lyrics is something we take for granted.
Take Sofi Mkheyan’s Hayastani Erge from 2012, a song that marks itself as Armenian in a variety of ways – from traditional dance to architecture, the military to religious schools, the subtle displays of the country flag, the classical orchestra, yet what predominates its narrative is the woman’s voice in the Armenian language.
From a single music video, the sense of pride, belonging and self-esteem for their nation is body echoed through the ceremony of faces from Armenia. They know who they are. Even people from other countries, as seen in the comments, are awed enough to feel as if they share that sense of love and pride.
The Romani people, or gypsies, have an official flag, their own language, and even set of laws, but they are a nation of ethnic travellers who literally make the world their oyster – they do not have a geographical piece of land they specifically call home. They’re not even tied to a single religion, choosing their own spiritual journey and thus their own faiths. Originating from Northern India from centuries ago, their global population sits at over 20 million. Today, they live scattered across the world’s cities, from Brazil to the United States, Egypt to the UK, and dozens of other countries.
What keeps them a nation, is language.
Their music and dance traditions and ceremonies were studied, perhaps most extensively and passionately by the Hungarian maestro Franz Liszt, who took the time to fully immerse in their culture in the woodlands. He wrote The Gypsy in Music, which sold thousands of copies in Europe in 1860, and is major reason why we know so much about gypsy music.
Because of Liszt’s influence, an ethic group that was discriminated as mysterious gadje without a home, are romanticized today in art and literature for their “musical creativity” with “nature”. And perhaps Liszt envied them a little, with the fun and freedom their children seem to be enjoying with their carefree lifestyle in the woods and oral music traditions – not having to shut indoors all the time, in stuffy clothes, with a strict Baroque teacher telling you read music sheets every day, and still be able to produce such “magical” music.
Oral musical traditions are rooted in assured and scrupulous faith. As the mother teaches her children how to express themselves in their language, so one Gypsy musician teaches the other. They have never shown any need for notation.
― Franz Liszt, commenting on Gypsy music
Today Roma is a celebrated culture of exotic music, dance, art and fashion across Europe and the world, with cities like Prague holding a vibrant World Roma Festival every year.
Had the language of the gypsies been stifled, the music of the Romani people would not have survived. Franz Liszt would not have composed his famous Hungarian Rhapsody with such a carefree, playfully seductive expression, and Tom the maestro cat would not have played it in this famous episode of Tom & Jerry – The Cat Concerto.
When a child knows that he belongs somewhere, he won’t be afraid to leave home.
Connecting The Human Race
You might have come across songs that sound awkward when transcribed into English from their original languages. Subtitles are not the issue – they facilitate understanding, in the way that somebody who has been in zero gravity space tries to describe how it was like to everyone else. However, changing the language of a song’s lyrics completely, rips the voice that was meant to be expressed.
Language puts anecdotes, sayings, meanings, nomenclature, and wisdom within song verses unique to itself, accumulated from centuries of knowledge and culture. Another language fails to capture this, because it does not share nor understand that history. Following misinterpretation, grammar bias and ego, translators can mistakenly bury a song’s actual intent forever.
These mistakes, unfortunately, will bleed onto listeners like us. We will make judgements and assumptions about another culture based off badly translated lyrics, that turn out to be completely false. Furthermore, lots of musical traditions are passed down by ceremony instead of books.
Musical traditions are always a thing of beauty. They add new chapters full of vibrant colour to human history. Therefore, photos and videography, luxuries of our time as convenient as they are valuable, become crucial tools to capture these ceremonies, from across the world, before the people are gone and they become lost in time.
The singer’s perspective, carried by language, is precious. In seeing the world through their eyes, we get to explore what life is like for them, where they came from, who they were, who they are, what this land used to be like, how they connect to spiritual realms, how they feel things like fear, hope, despair, family, anguish, and joy – things that make us all human. Most importantly, we get to listen to their hopes for humanity’s future.
This is not simply social work for preserving cultures in museum exhibits. It allows us to witness the true value of revitalizing language and culture to return a sense of pride and belonging to a people, reducing socioeconomic problems like drug abuse, unemployment, domestic violence and most importantly, skipping school.
Furthermore, there is so much to learn from old knowledge systems that have been already refined for us, so much commentaries we could make of their musical traditions and instrument making, as Franz Liszt did with the Gypsies.
Music programmes in school could be so much fun when we get to play with new wind instruments we rarely get to touch.
There are many reasons why a language dies, but everything points to the fact that it had no future. Natives to Canada such as the Inuit were caught in a rock and hard place the day foreigners came into their soil. Already mired in conflict and territorial dispute with other tribes, busy with economic opportunities with the Europeans, with Inuit families being shipped abroad to become exotic displays of “savagery” in Berlin, treated with climate shock and facing discrimination, many of them died to diseases from Europe.
Every nation has a dark history before their public began to recognize and emphasize the practice of human rights. For example, Canada’s Potlatch Law under the Indian Act once criminalised the ceremonies of the Aboriginal people.
From Section 3, An Act Further To Amend “The Indian Act, 1880.”
Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlach” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanour, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly, an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of the same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.
This drove the ceremonies underground, but it made the oral tradition of passing down ceremonies difficult, and grinded their spirit to dust. In abolishing tribal song and spiritual dance to replace them with Christian hymns, as if it was some kind of righteous exorcism, centuries of Canada’s cultural treasure became lost forever.
Also, poorly funded residential schools forced native children into an education ruled by strict Christianity and banned native languages. The reason we know so little about the musical heritage of Aboriginal peoples, despite written accounts and recordings, is because their spoken tongues were crucified and their ceremonies were banned, so their children have forgotten how to sing their own songs.
It’s harrowing to know that a somewhat similar reality exists here today, where migrant children are being held in detention centres in the US because of the strict immigration laws, separated from their parents. Speaking a language no one understands, volunteer groups scramble to hire translators as the child continues to get awkwardly isolated. This is sad, considering that the child is just sitting there quietly, but his eyes are full of language.
The agony of wanting to speak, to communicate your wishes, when people are right there in front of you, eager to help, yet not being able to do so, because nobody understands you, is far worse than censorship by the most oppressive regime.
Imagine growing up speaking a common tongue as easy and natural as water flowing in a river, with occasional bends, then learning that it is an endangered language that only 500 people on Earth are fluent in. Instead of being presented with opportunities, not even art, your language is dismissed. Day after day it seems that the effort is not worth it.
Even your community sees no value in it, and pursues other dominant languages, like French and English. After all, they’re working in Paris and London. Their native language is treated like an appendix, just a useless remnant from a tiny and insignificant portion of humanity’s long and vast history. After all, surgically removing the appendix from the human body has never posed any health problems. It’s not as if a language is a living species that needs to be protected. Its only natural that it gets replaced.
It is this mentality that has caused the history of Canada or Australia with Aboriginal natives to be seen as such a grave sin. It’s responsible for making the nation’s government look like it simply brushes aside the discriminatory laws and human rights abuses of the country’s past, when in reality they are already executing plans for reconciliation. Still, as the absolute ruling body, it is crucial for the government to be seen as committed toward reconciliation efforts, and thus human rights.
To open the door for reconciliation, we must make a serious effort to appreciate the culture and reignite the spirits of a people our European forebears once drove to extinction in the name of God. The people whom had to witness and bear cruelty simply for belonging to a “pagan” culture, now old and frail, are not that petty to be looking for vengeance. They’re not even really demanding for apology, thought that wouldn’t hurt.
They simply want the peace of mind that their children can live their lives peacefully, without disadvantage or discrimination, without fear of their souls and heritage getting evicted from the very land which they grew up in. They simply want a future.
The simplest way to do that, is to watch their ceremonies.
For once, without judgement or prejudice.
If we’re not able to recover what’s already lost, the least we could do is to encourage and give hope to young people who have come to believe their own native language is a burden. We can give them opportunities to make good with the culture they inherited – so that they, in turn, can add more depth to our own efforts at confronting sociocultural issues and misunderstanding.
We must remind them of the beauty of their language so that their spirits, dulled by pragmatism, can be reignited, so that they can once more create art with the kind of frenzy their ancestors did. Music is sometimes a greater edict than law – its delicate beauty forces someone out of a defeated state of mind, pushing them back up on their feet. After all, we already have bands like A Tribe Called Red in Canada advocating for racial inclusion and acceptance through urban music, and singers like Archie Roach in Australia lending his gentle voice for love and peace.
I’m so sorry
For the world today
With all the killing
And all the hate
And it’s not
Too late for love
For all the children everywhere
Hopefully, at long last, we can close the bloody chapters of European conquest, discrimination, and forceful assimilation from centuries past in a humane manner. We can end it with tales of reconciliation, openly honest ones at that, by hosting all of these cultural shows and seminars with the kind of passion you’d find in feminist workshops – except warm and welcoming instead of militant and exclusive, instead of trying to placate the media or praying that history in the Internet era magically disappear from living memory.
We can celebrate human life with greater joy and diversity if we make our society a more inclusive one.
Language doesn’t die by itself. It gets extinguished alongside centuries of accumulated oral and written history. It renders inscriptions useless, deflates song lyrics into musically pleasant, primeval gibberish to be played in Twitch streams, makes instruments odd pieces of junk, and dismantles spiritual ceremonies into club music fodder. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – you can still enjoy the music, but with its history gone you’ll never be able to truly appreciate it.
That’s one less musical culture we can immerse in, take photos, make vlogs, and write books about. If you kill the language, you kill the people. This is not flowery exaggeration either.
Research into Indigenous families in Australia, such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) conducted from September 2014 to June 2015, shows an overwhelming body that youths who grow up without their ancestral language are more prone to a slew of problems – from domestic violence to excessive drinking, poor attendance in school and less going to college, higher unemployment rate, and worse mental and physical health. Why invite socioeconomic issues in your own backyard?
Discrimination begins with people’s language and ends with the human race.