Living World Music

Foreign language music expands us

Dining on Sacred Cow

What it is, my friend explains, is an investment in my brand. “When you bring a woman back to your room and put on these CDs, you’re stating something.” I thumb through my bright yellow checkout bag to reaffirm the presence of the Persian funk, Fon pop, Swedish electro-folk, and Khmer classical albums that I’ve bought off the Princeton Record Exchange’s discount rack. I nod, answering absently, “That would be nice.”

My brother, an all-American devotee of the Chili Peppers and The Doors, insists that I’ve forced a taste for world music. Whenever my car stereo choices get too sappy or too thuggish, too fast or too slow, I’m met with the familiar passenger-side refrain: “You wouldn’t like this if it were in English.”

To the best of my understanding, my music preferences are not deliberate; any signaling effect, however pleasant, is unplanned and incidental. The answer is not, however, that I enjoy songs incomprehensible to me simply as crunchy background noise. The lion’s share of my foreign music collection comes in three flavors: Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic, languages I speak and understand in various degrees short of my native tongue.

But just as Hebrew songs work differently for me from Khmer songs, the factor of nativeness means that English songs work quite differently for me from Hebrew songs. The greatest difference? Not an easily sentimental person, I recoil from English-language songs that gush: Such mainstays as “I Will Always Love You,” “At Last,” and “My Heart Will Go On” shake me with revulsion. But by some linguistic mechanism, the walls come down when it’s Hebrew, Spanish, or Arabic—no matter how transparent the lyrics, I’ll even elect to listen to songs about things like love, loss, and pride.

I found my first favorite song in kindergarten, a driving Israeli ballad called “Noladti La-shalom (I Was Born to the Peace),’’ written by Uzi Hitman (what a name for him!) and performed in the 1980s by an erstwhile girl group called Sakseta. Still in pre-ironic territory, I never really thought much about the apple-picking, kicking dance they taught us to accompany the florid lyric, delivered in Hebrew to a classic Israeli minor key: “I was born to the melodies / and to the songs of all the nations / I was born to the language / and to the place, too / to the many, to the few / who’ll reach out a hand to peace / Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!” And although as I read my translation, my postmodern 20-year-old brain can’t help but smirk, shrug, and shudder all at once, I still love the damned song. You can bet I wouldn’t in English.

As a student of the Middle East and the Arabic language, I’ve been exposed over the last few years to a musical tradition both rich in artistry and soggy with sentimentality. But by the aforementioned change in consciousness that occurs when listening to a song in a learned language, I’m able to uncringingly enjoy the love theatrics of Lebanon’s Majda El Roumi, who intones: “No one can fill / your place in my heart. / How could your heart be so tough / with the one who loved you so? / No one can fill / your place in my heart / Tell me, my love! / Tell me, my love!” While I might not feel the depth of Majda’s frenzy, I’m at least inclined to listen on.

It’s been well established that shifting between native and foreign tongues can make for significant changes in cognition: As a recent Scientific American headline advertises, “Reasoning is sharper in a foreign language.” Investigating a set of cognitive biases related to the relative weighing of losses and gains, University of Chicago researchers found that when multilingual people used non-native languages, their biases dissipated, resulting in decisions “less biased, more analytic, [and] more systematic.”

Of greatest import to me was lead author Boaz Keysar’s underlying conclusion, that thinking in a foreign language “provides psychological distance” and “helps us disconnect from…emotions.” As I’ve thought before, listening in Hebrew, Spanish, or Arabic allows me a measure of control over the words I process, compared to an English that automatically bombards me with emotional cues, which in turn invites a machisimo cascade of stoicism and disgust.

In short, I’m hung up on world music because it allows me to be more human. Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic verse, written or sung, allows me a measured access to aspects of myself—patriot, lover, non-neurotic—to which I’d normally prefer not to be attached. No, I probably wouldn’t like a good deal of it in English. Cognitively speaking, that’s sort of the point. Now if you’ll allow, I’ll get back to reading about war, drinking my scotch, and listening to Eres Tú.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a near eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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