10 Enjoyable Songs That Aren’t In English

I recently participated in a song draft facilitated by Hans of SliceTheLife. Along with 12 other music bloggers, I selected 10 songs. I set myself some restrictions for my draft – after all, this site is already full of lists like 10 Best Hit Songs of the 1980s. My theme for this year’s draft was songs that aren’t in English. It’s easy to mostly listen to songs in English, or maybe instrumental music like jazz and classical, so I tried to

I also aimed to curate songs from 10 different countries, as a lot of my non-English listening generally sticks to a few countries like Germany, Nigeria, and Japan.

Azana – Your Love

from South Africa, 2020
Unbeknown to many music fans, there’s currently a fertile South African house music scene. It’s known in South Africa by the name amapiano, Zulu for “the pianos”, and originated in South African townships like Soweto. Amapiano is now in the mainstream of South African music, blending house sounds with soul and pop. One of the leading figures in the house scene is producer Sun-El Musician, who enjoyed a prolific 2020, producing acclaimed albums from Mthunzi and Simmy as well as releasing the epically long three-hour album To the World & Beyond under his own name.

Perhaps the most notable record from the SunElWorld stable in 2020, however, was Ingoma, a record by 19-year-old newcomer Azana. Makhosazana Masango is from Durban and the most memorable song on her debut is ‘Your Love’, inspired by a long-distance relationship.

Azana’s ‘Your Love’ has enjoyed more than 3,000,000 views on Youtube, but judging from the comments most of these plays are coming from inside Africa. She doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page yet, even though her creamy voice is totally radio-friendly. ‘Your Love’ is gorgeous, with a simple chord progression and lovely production. The video is great too, the colourful visuals are a perfect accompaniment for the song.

Can – Halleluwah

from Germany, 1971
Germany’s Can were too ahead of their time, and too weird, to enjoy a hit record. They were hugely influential; when Radiohead ditched guitar rock in favour of more experimental work, Can were one of the bands that they cited as an influence. Can synthesised disparate ideas; their studio tracks were often derived from improvisations. Their members had backgrounds in jazz and classical – keyboardist Irwin Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay studied with Stockhausen. They were also inspired by the rock music of psychedelic-era Beatles and The Velvet Underground.

Can’s peak period is often reckoned to be the years when Japan’s Damo Suzuki fronted the band. Can released four albums between 1970 and 1973, and ‘Halleluwah’ is drawn from this period.

It’s an 18-minute behemoth that took up an entire side of 1971’s Tago Mago. The most noticeable feature is Jaki Liebezeit’s monster drum groove, which powers the song, while Damo Suzuki’s performance is typically charismatic and cryptic. Most of Suzuki’s lyrics are ostensibly in English, but they’re difficult to understand. It’s difficult to believe ‘Halleluwah’ was recorded in 1971 – the rhythm-heavy and improvisational sound is forward-thinking and still sounds fresh and exciting.

Paul Kelly – Yil Lull

from Australia, 1992
Including ‘Yil Lull’ as a non-English song for this draft is somewhat dubious. Only the chorus – ‘Yil Lull’ is the aboriginal word for “sing” – is not in English. But as a song with a message, it makes sense that it’s in English, to reach as many people as possible.

Australian Paul Kelly is an acclaimed and prolific songwriter, but ‘Yil Lull’ is a cover, written by Joe Geia. Paul Kelly participated in a 1988 version of the song, recorded for the Australian bicentennial. It was released by the Singers For The Red Black & Gold, a reference to the colours on the aboriginal flag. Other participants included Archie Roach, Christine Anu, Judith Durham, Kutcha Edwards, Renee Geyer and Tidda.

The version I’m featuring is a live take from Paul Kelly and the Messengers’ Hidden Things, a compilation that also included gems like ‘When I First Met Your Ma’ and ‘Bradman’. Kelly’s constantly showed empathy toward aboriginal issues, co-writing ‘Treaty’ with Yothu Yindi, as well as ‘Special Treatment’ and ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.

Songwriter Joe Geia on ‘Yil Lull’.

I asked my Uncle Don one day, I said Dad Brady ‘what’s a word for sing in our language’? That’s when Uncle Don told me, “we say, Yil-lull, son it’s like a mourning song”. He added, you know when you long way from home and you miss all your countryman and family, even them old fathers and grand fathers.. and he started to cry himself. As he had another nip from his glass of wine, and wiped his tears. He finished with “That’s what it means”. And Uncle Don would continue and say, “I wish your Dad was here, he’d scatter these bastards.”

It was something our families knew, and would not skite too much about. But Uncle Don did some growing up on Palm Island too, and as young as he was, he did his growing up alongside Dad.

It was an experience and a moment in time, that would make you think and say.. yeah I’m gonna write a song about this.

And that’s when it all went down onto pen and paper, a two chord song, with a bridge and a backing story like that. In the middle of an era of true political fight and struggle, all for the cause, Yil-lull was born.

Joe Geia, Facebook

Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit

from Nigeria, 1975
Fela Kuti was nominated for the rock and roll hall of fame this year, although in a less American-centric hall he could have been inducted years ago. Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938, the son of an Anglican minister. His brothers became doctors but Kuti chose to study trumpet at Trinity School of Music.

Returning to Africa, Kuti pioneered Afrobeat, adding African textures to James Brown’s lengthy funk jams. He sang in Yoruba or in pidgin English. He lived a colourful life – in 1978 he married 27 women at once. He declared his communal compound, the Kalakuta Republic, an independent state. Because of his outspoken political views, Kuti faced oppression from the Nigerian government, as demonstrated in ‘Expensive Shit’. I’ll let Wikipedia explain:

The title of the album and first track refers to an incident in 1974. The Nigerian police planted a joint on Kuti. Before he was arrested, he ate the joint, but the police brought him into custody and waited for him to produce the (titular) excrement. According to legend, he managed to use another inmate’s feces and was eventually released.

Expensive Shit, Wikipedia

Typically, ‘Expensive Shit’ is a lengthy song, stretching to almost a quarter of an hour and taking an album side. When Kuti’s not singing, his saxophone is also prominent. It’s fun to hear his joyous mix of pidgin English and Yoruba – the way he pronounces “shit” is delicious.

Kuti passed away from AIDS in 1997, but the string of joyful yet provocative music he recorded in the 1970s remains impressive.

Los Lobos – La Pistola y El Corazón

from the US, 1988
It’s perhaps a little counterintuitive to include a band from the USA in my draft of non-English songs, but Los Lobos qualify. “The Wolves” always feel perpetually under-rated – despite having a richer back-catalogue than almost any other American band, they’re basically one-hit wonders to many, remembered for their cover of Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’. Formed in east L.A. in the early 1970s, they represent a cross-pollination of cultures, singing in both English and Spanish, and dabbling in a wide range of American music traditions.

‘La Pistola y El Corazón’ is the title track of their 1988 EP, Spanish for “The Pistol and the Heart”. The record’s notable for its cover painting; in 1999 it placed in a Rolling Stone list of 100 best album covers, while the original painting was owned by Madonna before it was lost in a house fire. La Pistola y El Corazón focuses in on one aspect of the group’s sound: Tejano/Mariachi folk music.

While the album is primarily covers, including traditional songs, ‘La Pistola’ is an original, with David Hidalgo on lead vocals. Hidalgo is also on accordion, while Cesar Rosas plays the huapanguera, an eight-stringed Mexican instrument that’s like a larger acoustic guitar. Conrad Lozano is on guitarron, a large acoustic guitar instrument for bass, while Louie Pérez is on jarana.

Los Lobos’ catalogue is full of delights – 1992’s Kiko is a terrific album – it’s worth exploring, and this traditional-style Mexican song just shows one of their many facets.

Mdou Moctar – Tarhatzed

from Niger, 2019
Niger guitar hero Mdou Moctar grew up in Arlit, a uranium mining town near the Algerian border. He made his first guitar out of bicycle brake cables, old wood, and the key from a sardine can – his family disapproved of electric music. His music became popular in sub-Saharan Africa through cellphone music trading networks, and he came to western attention when two of his songs appeared on the compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones: Volume 1. Moctar blends traditional desert music with western guitar heroes – like Jimi Hendrix, he plays a Stratocaster left-handed, while he starred in a low-budget Niger remake of Purple Rain.

‘Tarhatazed’ appeared on Moctar’s first record with a full band, 2019’s Ilana The Creator. He sings in Tamasheq, a Malian variant of Tuareg. but on ‘Tarhatzed’ his guitar is the primary communicator. It’s free-wheeling and psychedelic, dancing around the bluesy riff.

Mdou Moctar has plenty to say politically as well – in this year’s pointedly named Afrique Victime, he sings  “Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent it will be the end of us / My brothers and sisters, tell me why this is happening?“ But his guitar is even more fluent.

Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges – O Trem Azul

from Brazil, 1972
It took some time for rock music to blossom in Brazil – the country was ruled by a military dictatorship that suppressed political commentary. The unglamorous mining state of Minas Gerais became the centre of a new scene dubbed Clube da Esquina. Clube da Esquina took its name from a 1972 album made by guitarist Lô Borges and multi-instrumentalist Milton Nascimento. Clube da Esquina is one of the best-known Brazilian albums among western music fans due to its inclusion in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

‘O Trem Azul’ has traces of rock – Borges and Nascimento were both big fans of The Beatles. But there are also traces of jazzy, and it’s gently acoustic and psychedelic.

Nascimento has his share of political songs, but ‘O Trem Azul’ is a gentle song. The title translates as “the blue train”, and it’s pretty and impressionistic. It was later covered by popular Brazilian singer Elis Regina, on her final album in 1980.

Rosalía – Malamente

from Spain, 2018
Rosalía Vila Tobella was born in Barcelona in 1993. She became interested in flamenco music and studied at the Superior School of Music of Catalonia – by the age of 20 she was a flamenco teacher. Her first album was traditional flamenco, recorded with guitarist Raül Refree.

On her second album, she mixed traditional flamenco with modern pop and urban sounds. El Mal Querer was released in 2018, and it’s based on the 19th-century novel Romance of Flamenca. The lead single and lead-off track is ‘Malamente’, Spanish for “badly”.

There are recognisable flamenco elements in ‘Malamente’ – the handclaps and acoustic guitars. But at the same time, ‘Malamente’ is clearly contemporary, with its modern beats and synths it’s not out of place on top 40 radio. Rosalía and producer El Guincho both regard ‘Malamente’ as a 21st-century version of a copla, “a dramatic Southern Spanish ballad style with flamenco flourishes.”

Rosalía hasn’t released another studio album since 2018, but she has released a string of singles, collaborating with artists like Billie Eilish and Bad Bunny.

Ringo Sheena – Keikoku (Caution)

from Japan, 1999
Ringo Sheena is big in Japan. Since her debut single as a 19-year-old in 1998, every album she’s released has reached the top 3 in her native country. This includes her records with the band Tokyo Jihen, while she’s also written hits for boyband Tokio. This all suggests a confident performer who panders to the mainstream, but Wikipedia describes Ringo as “well known for her eccentricity” and her body of work is diverse and challenging.

Ringo Sheena was barely 20 when she released her debut album Muzai Moratorium, writing all of the tracks. It’s not her most acclaimed work. I’ve seen it described as having too much of a debt to Alanis Morisette, and her arty fourth album Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana is often deemed her best. But I love ‘Keikoku’, buried down as the second last track of Muzai Moratorium. Sheena wished to release it as her first single but was overruled by her record company.

Guitarist Susumu Nishikawa only worked with Shiina Ringo for her first couple of albums, but he’s monstrous here. The bluesy opening riff is huge, and there’s a great solo too. The rhythm section is funky, while Sheena’s lead vocal is youthful and athletic.

The language barrier has prevented Ringo Sheena from becoming popular outside of Japan, but she’s a fascinating artist.

Sigur Rós – Sæglópur

from Iceland, 2005
Sigur Rós may only be Iceland’s second most celebrated musical export, behind Björk, but they’ve enjoyed an acclaimed career. Forming in Reykjavík in 1994, the post-rock band’s music reflects their environment – Jonsi’s falsetto voice and the use of a violin bow on guitar all give their music a glacial beauty.

Post-rock features more extreme dynamic contrasts and longer songs than most forms of rock music – in some ways it’s comparable to classical. Sigur Ros’ music has a cinematic quality – it’s not surprising that the song has turned up in numerous TV shows and movies, including Top Gear and Aquaman. But there’s some great pop sense in Sigur Rós too – the central piano hook of ‘ Sæglópur’ is memorable, and the song is propulsive once the drums kick in.

Some of Sigur Rós’ lyrics use the invented language Hopelandic, but ‘Sæglópur’ is Icelandic for “lost at sea”.

And here’s the wider list from the draft, with songs from 13 different bloggers. I don’t endorse everything on the draft, but most of it’s great. There are plenty of long-time favourites here – Prefab Sprout, John Prine, The Replacements, ‘Linus and Lucy’, Richard Thompson, 1980s R.E.M., and ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ are among many excellent choices.

There were three songs from the 130 song draft that I couldn’t find on Spotify – ‘They Call The Wind Maria’ by Harve Presnell, ‘Heavy Chevy’ by Alabama Shakes, and ‘Misery’ by The Dynamics.

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    • That’s cool – ties in nicely to Sunday’s post. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pop song moved to Italian but it does work for that.

      • I hoped it was within the orbit of what you are looking for. Being non-English added incredible depth and passion for me.

  1. Unbelievably, I’ve actually heard about five of these foreign language songs. I don’t know many foreign language songs, and when I do it’s usually German for some reason. I don’t speak German, so it must be because I like a lot of German artists or something. idk. My favorite foreign language song of all time is Sexy Boy by the French electronic band AIR. Or Oye Como Va by Santana. And also the French lyrics version of Sunday Girl by Blondie. And La Bamba. Or Corazon by Carole King, and some of the other foreign language ones that become freak hits in the U.S. Like Guantanamera or Feliz Navidad. Love all those.

    There are a lot of great records on that Spotify draft list, but I don’t know what the theme is, What is it a list of? Their favorite all-time songs?

    • Everyone got to choose ten songs basically. I had a theme but I don’t think most other people did.

      I like a bunch of arty 1970s German stuff but not much that’s more recent.

  2. Fantastic Graham! I was hoping someone would put together a playlist of all the songs in the draft! Thanks for taking that on!

    • I barely know any chanson – just a bit of Jacques Brel via Scott Walker, and one Serge Gainsbourg record. Any recommendations?

      • Off the top of my head there is Nanette Workman who actually grew up in the American South, worked with rock acts like the Stones but made a bigger name for herself in Chanson. Vanessa Paradis who had a huge hit with “Joe le Taxi” in the 80’s. Niagara and Les Rita Misotuko were like New Wave rock bands.

  3. Kudos for doing this, Graham. Undoubtedly, there’s a huge music world out there beyond English-speaking countries. I can only speak for myself. I pretty much know nothing from that world except for Germany (with huge gaps – e.g., while I’m aware of their name, I haven’t listened to Can) and a bit of France.

    While it certainly takes more than just a quick sampling of your Spotify playlist, Mdou Moctar’s virtuous guitar-playing, Sheena Ringo’s energy level and Azana who reminds me a bit of Sade stand out to me. That Fela Kuti tune with its groove is also pretty cool – plus. who doesn’t like Expensive Shit! 🙂

    • My German music knowledge is pretty much limited to weird arty stuff from the 1960s and 1970s – I don’t really know anything more recent.

      I did not know about Expensive Shit until I heard the song.

      • Bruce at Vinyl Connection surprises me time and again with his detailed knowledge of Krautrock and other German music.

        It’s also true you have to be willing to explore new stuff. That’s how you evidently found “Expensive Shit.”

        While I realize it’s English language music, the majority of picks I feature in my “Best of What’s New” series is by artists who are completely new to me. I could apply the same approach to explore music from non-English speaking countries.

        One of my challenges – and I know it sounds a bit like a lame excuse – is lack of time. Between exploring contemporary (English language) music for “Best of What’s New” and paying homage to the ’60s and ’70s it’s really tough to find the capacity for additional activities.

  4. I liked Can, Los Lobos, and most of all Mdou Moctar…great guitarist. Not only great guitarist but I love the sound he gets.

    Thanks for the list…

  5. Always enjoyable are –

    Ça Plane Pour Moi – Plastic Bertrand
    99 Red Balloons – Nena (German version)
    La Bamba – Los Lobos
    Waterloo – ABBA (Swedish version)

    Obviously there are loads of world music artists who sing in their native languages.

    * Incidentally, it always annoys me when people sing the introduction to La Bamba incorrectly – singing “la-la-la-la la Bamba” when, as any Hispanophile knows it is “para bailar la bamba” (to dance the goat).

    • Yep. Ca Plane Pour Moi is the best one ever. It was an actual hit too. 99 Luftballons is great too, but they used to play the English version on the radio. The German one is better. Grace Jones’ La Vie en Rose is the other greatest French one.

  6. You have opened a big window. There is life (and music) around the world besides UK / US / AUS. Of course, as classic rock / pop music is an “anglo” invention, it is natural that the best and most recognized players came from there. Latinamerica has a long tradition, since the 50s and 60s, of rock and fusion-rock artists. During the 70s, 80s and 90s, the country with more and better rock groups (in more or less the style of the anglo world but in Spanish) was Argentina: Almendra, Manal, Crucis, Spinetta, Vox, Dei, Serú Giran, Soda Stereo, Charly García, Sumo, Virus, Andrés Calamaro … and millions more).

  7. Indeed, Can was a weird group. I have Future Days with Suzuki, but have only listened to it twice.

    Here are a couple votes for English (Canterbury) musicians who succeed in stepping away from their native tongue: “Puis Je?” (French) by Kevin Ayers; and “Frontera” (Spanish) by Robert Wyatt, but featured on Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head album.

    • Future Days is actually my favourite Can album, although Tago Mago is a lot more envelope pushing.

      I’m woefully unacquainted with the Canterbury stuff. Just know a bit of Wyatt stuff and a little bit of Caravan and Ayers.

      • They’re the biggies, along with Soft Machine. There are also Daevid Allen and Gong, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Egg (a personal favorite), and all sorts of offshoot and tenuously connected acts.

  8. Batonga by Angelique Kidjo.
    Being married to a Venezuelan and therefore occasionally having a house full of native Spanish-speakers, as the person in charge of the music I sometimes feel guilty that it’s all in English. On the other hand, I firmly believe that English is the language of rock’n’roll, just as it’s the language of air traffic control and football referees. That’s just the way it is; for convenience and in some cases safety, there has to a standard language.
    As for music, the US and UK were so far ahead of anywhere else in the early days of rock that English became the default by sheer volume of material.
    The only songs in my collection that are in another language are by Angelique Kidjo, who is from Benin, a former French colony in west Africa. I came across her on a TV show devoted to the song Summertime, of which she did a version, and when I bought the album I was surprised to hear it was in a language I had never even heard before. I was also surprised to find I enjoyed some of the songs despite not knowing what the lyrics are about. Check out Batonga, a rhythmic, catchy number that transcends language.
    Non English speakers have been getting into our music for decades without complaining and I take my hat off to them. On the other hand, I have no desire to hear a German translation of Whole Lotta Love or a Russian version of Both Sides Now.

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