Sunday, May 04, 2008

iPod Log 3 -- Xenophilia Edition

My iPod music library includes songs in eleven languages other than English.* The other morning, the iPod went on a xenophiliac binge, playing six foreign language songs in succession. These were:

E Inu Tatou E, the Kingston Trio. First, the bad stuff. These were white frat boys who named their group for the capital of Jamaica because they wanted to cash in on a craze for African-Caribbean calypso music. They affected fake Mexican accents on some of their songs; for example, "Coplas", "En el Agua" and, most famously, "Tijuana Jail" ("SEE-nyor come WEETH me, 'cause I want YOOOO!"). "Coplas Revisited", from their album College Concert, recorded live at UCLA in December, 1961, includes a line that I didn't understand for several years after first hearing it:

Show me a cowboy who rides sidesaddle,
And I'll show you a gay ranchero.
I guess that proves the old saw about California being a cultural bellwether. The good is that the Trio were all talented musicians who, over the course of a decade or so, and with one personnel change (John Stewart replacing Dave Guard in 1961), committed a lot of music to vinyl, much of which was quite good and some of which was superb. Folk purists derided them as inauthentic, middle-class, button-down shirt wearing squares. In truth, they were sometimes guilty of putting a bourgeois gloss on their material. I can't imagine a real working sailors' chantey including lines like "The ragged heavens open up / We sound the jubilation," as they put into their version of "Haul Away, Joe". Their eclecticism was remarkable: among the styles of music they interpreted and were influenced by were the aforementioned calypso, Hawaiian (Bob Shane was born and raised on the Big Island, and Dave Guard spent several years in a prep school in Honolulu), Appalachian and Celtic, Spanish and Mexican, African and blues. They have been credited with creating and nurturing a taste in American audiences for what is now called "world music". To top it all off, from my point of view, I learned from the Wikipedia article linked above that they even had a Mets connection. They learned what became their most-requested song, "Scotch and Soda", a blues-tinged lounge number, from Tom Seaver's parents, when one of them was dating Seaver's sister. "E Inu Tatou E" is an example of their Hawaiian repertoire. I couldn't find a translation of the lyrics, which are credited to George Archer. Some lyrics sources give it the subtitle "Drinking Song", and, on the Live at Newport album, Guard introduces the song and translates the title as "Let's Get Drunk".

Ebben, Ne Andro Lontana, East Village Opera Company. I've mentioned this group and this aria in an earlier iPod log. The aria is from Alfredo Catalini's seldom staged La Wally. At the first EVOC concert I attended, AnnMarie Milazzo introduced her nail-you-to-the-wall rendition by saying, "When you have to marry someone you don't want to, you get really, really mad."

El Preso Numero Nueve, Joan Baez. You also get really, really mad if you're a hard-working hombre who comes home to find his wife in the arms of un amigo desleal--mad enough to commit double murder, then tell the padre, just before you face the firing squad, that you have no fear, and will follow their footsteps through eternity. This is from Joan's auspicious first album, which, to the occasional dismay of my roommate, who called her "the screaming bitch", I listened to on many late evenings during my freshman year at USF.

Elama, Yasser Habeeb. I got this hypnotic, Indian-influenced song off Putumayo's Sahara Lounge. According to the album's notes, Habeeb is a Dubai native who started as a recording engineer and producer, then approached EMI with "Elama" ("Until When"), which became a hit throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. The notes give this translation of the lyrics:
Until when will this agony last? / Until when do I have to tolerate this torture when I have not harmed anyone? / The more you make me suffer, the more I am attracted to you / You keep hurting me, but I never complain / Just treat me fairly for once.
You can play a sample here.

Schlittenfahrt, Marlene Dietrich. If you've ever longed to hear the Blue Angel sing "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma in German translation, this is it.

Usku Dara, Eartha Kitt. When I was about seven, and we were living in rural Hertfordshire, England, one afternoon my mother and I were listening to BBC radio when the disc jockey said, "And now, here's some Turkish music." What followed was a tune so hooky that it remained caught in my memory until some thirty or so years later when Mike McGovern, a New York Daily News writer who later became known as Kinky Friedman's sidekick in the Kinkster's detective novels, invited several of us who had closed down the Lion's Head to come to his place for a nightcap. He poured us each some whiskey, then put an Eartha Kitt album on his turntable. After a couple of cuts, I was amazed to hear the same exotic tune that had so captivated me as a child. Judge it for yourself (including the two deliciously non sequitur spoken English translations) here:

I'll close with a strong recommendation of another musically-oriented blog, Struts and Frets, by DJStan. His most recent post, on the late New York street musician and Whitmanesque genius Moondog, reminds me of a gaping hole in my music collection: I still don't have The Band's Moondog Matinee.

Erratum: Thanks to DJStan for pointing out an error. In listing the languages represented in my iPod library, I had assumed that "Kol Rina", by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, was sung in Hebrew. In fact, it's in Yiddish, and I've corrected the list accordingly.
*These are: Arabic, French, Gaelic, German, Hawaiian, Italian, Malagasy, Spanish, Turkish, Yiddish and Zulu. (Breton and Czech are soon to be added.)


  1. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Schlittenfahrt indeed.

  2. What? No Yiddish? That means no klezmer, and that's one genre that you should not be without. Native son Don Byron's tasty clarinet work with the Klezmer Conservatory Band is worth checking out, as are the Klezmatics. For a good overview of both historic and contemporary klezmer music, the "Rough Guide to Klezmer" is excellent. Another fascinating musical document is the double CD "From Avenue A to the Great White Way", which traces the history of Yiddish music in America and its impact on American popular music.

    BTW, thanks for the tip o' the Scales hat - much appreciated!

  3. Apologies! I just reread the op and noticed Yiddish, which - in my haste to pontificate - I completely overlooked the first time around. I hang my head and look chagrined.