Strangers In A Foreign Land—Print Issue 2016

By Yasmine El Sanyoura

This article originally appeared in demo 12, our 2015/2016 print issue. You can find a PDF of the print issue here.

The diversity of music around the world demonstrates the wide range of emotions that art can express. However, what happens when music in one language reaches an audience that does not understand it? In the Western world, English dominates the mainstream — which is not to say that there have not been any non-English hit singles. In 2012, for example, we saw South Korean rapper/singer PSY’s “Gangnam Style” become the first song to hit a billion views on YouTube. Other non-English songs that have climbed the charts include Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” (1963), Enigma’s “Sadeness (Part 1)” (1990), Nena’s “99 Luftballons” (1983), and Ritchie Valens cover of “La Bamba” (1958).

However, while few non-English songs get a share of the spotlight, many others still find success with English-speaking audiences, albeit not as Billboard “hits.” The way in which these audiences interpret the foreign music and respond to it allows them the privilege of new experiences, but it comes at the expense of the artists’ intentions.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of foreign artists singing in their native languages have found unexpected success with an audience stuck firmly behind the language barrier. On one hand, this has resulted in increasingly diverse touring experiences, with artists performing all over North America and Europe. When asked about this diversity, Hamed Sinno, lead singer of Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila, reflected on how their first concert in Paris several years ago had had an audience that was 70 to 80 percent Arab. These days, he noted, that number (again at a Paris show) had dwindled to about 20 to 25 percent. In a similar vein, Gerald Belanger, founder of event company Kpopcanada, said that crowds at K-pop concerts they organize are not typically Korean. Krowdpop’s regional manager, Eunice Chang, went even further, stating, “80 percent of K-pop fans in Toronto aren’t Asian.”

The plethora of international music online and its accessibility to anyone with an internet connection has put these international artists in a unique position. On one hand, there are fans that support artists’ music as a whole, with the sound, lyrics, and message all acting together to appeal to the listener. On the other hand, there are fans that have been able to separate the music from the message because they simply do not know how to do otherwise. When they listen to the lyrics, their senses are only responding to the sound.

Many English-speaking listeners love the element of the unknown found in foreign music. Music becomes interactive on a whole new level, creating a dialogue between the listeners’ imagination and the sounds of the artists’ instruments and voices; since the the words are incomprehensible, the music is free of any imposed or intended meaning. The mystery of the foreign language allows the listener to project their own fantasies on to what they think the song might be saying. For example, Jim Jarmusch uses the enigmatic feeling “characteristic” of foreign music in his Moroccan-set film Only Lovers Left Alive. During a scene in which the two main (vampiric) characters reflect on the mystery of life, Yasmine Hamdan performs the song “Hal” in Arabic. The audience sees the song entrance both vampires, creating the impression of a depth of understanding that eludes them in their own lives; instead, the chorus repeats “Ana ma andee hal,” or “I don’t have a solution.” The scene gets by thanks to an emotional aspect of the song that goes beyond the lyrics; however, there is a fine line between the appreciation of the mystery of foreign music and allowing it to become a vehicle for the fetishizing of these foreign artists and, by extension, their cultures. With foreign music, listeners are free to interpret the music as they wish, and this can be both liberating and problematic.

Many foreign artists deal in relatively lighthearted subject matter. K-pop, which has become a worldwide phenomenon (but has yet to complete its Western crossover), produces music that listeners are meant to consume as one part of a larger, playful bundle. The music is combined with corresponding choreography and music videos to contextualize the song for both Korean and non-Korean listeners, ultimately making it easier for non-Koreans to digest the music itself by associating it with fun dance moves. On the other hand, many foreign songs do have deeper meanings. For example, there is a difference between groups and artists that are hugely popular in their own countries by the standards of the local mainstream scene, such as K-pop group Apink, and those that do not conform to the market and instead opt for politically charged music, like Mashrou’ Leila.

With much of non-Korean pop, listeners who do not know the band’s language do not have as many aesthetic and visual prompts to assist with contextualization. Moreover, the context is often quite difficult to grasp with only a shallow understanding of the surrounding circumstances. For example, Mashrou’ Leila’s music is situated in the social and political context of the Arab world. Understanding this requires understanding the society in which the music is based, which is not always easy, especially in a post-9/11 West that vilifies Arabs through racial stereotyping. Ignorance of the politically-charged context paired with an inability to understand the message being expressed ultimately presents the risk of reducing the lyrics to just another sound in the ensemble.

It becomes a question of intentionality: which part of the fanbase should the artist cater towards? The part that appreciates the music for its ability to transcend the barriers of language and still evoke feelings, or the part that is able to contextualize the music and directly relate to it? The music allows for both: giving listeners who do not understand the ability to create new meaning, and providing those who do with a concrete connection to their culture.

Foreign music in the Western world thus caters to several audiences and serves several different functions simultaneously. Despite this phenomenon being sometimes problematic (in a way that should continue to be examined), it shows how at its core, music transcends language barriers globally and continues to make an impact on listeners whether or not they understand the lyrics. Music has the power to make a positive change in individual lives; in the words of Hamed Sinno, “what music can do is allow people to construct a sense of self that’s less alienated from what we believe is the status quo.”

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