A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
First of all, there’s something you should know about me. I don’t just ramble on about Russia all day, although many would say it seems like I do. I actually have a (not very) secret second life as a trainee Latin dance teacher and amateur soprano. As a result, I spend a great deal of time with songs, taking them apart from various angles, trying to make them work for me or, more often, trying to do justice to them.
Writing about song lyrics for Vulpes Libris seemed like a natural outlet for something that is such a part of my life. However, the process of imagining a relatively short article on something as vast and diverse and slippery as song lyrics turned out to be far more complicated than I thought. Just the idea of considering song lyrics separately from music and rhythm forced me to ask myself: just why do I enjoy the music I enjoy? How much of that appeal comes from the lyrics themselves, and how much from the combination of lyrics and melody/orchestration/percussion? How much does the performance affect the whole?
For example, it is clear from the outset that some of my very favourite songwriters and performers appeal to me in spite of their lyrics, rather than because of them. This is most certainly the case with KISS. Johnny Hallyday* has a team of excellent songwriters who write strings of hits for him, but any successful performer who can describe himself in song as a “tree without its bark”, a “wounded warrior” and a “dog abandoned by the side of the road” has clearly made it on showmanship and a good backing band. I love Black Sabbath (in the Ozzy days) but I’m not going to pretend they decoded the universe when they wrote Iron Man.
Sometimes, it’s a case of a perfect (for me) blend of lyrics, music and performance. Queen has this. I’d go further, but who needs to describe Queen?
And sometimes the lyrics are clearly the outstanding feature of the song. (I’ve already spoken at length about one songwriting poet, Kris Kristofferson, here.) Take the political classic El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido (The People United Shall Never Be Conquered), text by the Chilean folklore group Quilapayún. The tune is simple and stays close to the rhythms of spoken Spanish in such a way that nothing obscures the force of the text; the refrain is shouted rather than sung (and any performance of this song is usually a mass participation event):
JaMAS seRA venCIDO!
Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land is quite different in tone – and most certainly to be sung, not shouted – but it too carries all its impact in its text; it has always felt to me like a poem set to music. Certainly it is an angry song, but this is not the anger of the protest anthem; starting off gently as the singer wonders about the fate of the young private by whose grave he is sitting, it rises to a sad, bitter, indignant climax in the final verse:
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that was butchered and damned.
Bogle’s lament does not pull its punches, but neither does it tip over into vituperation. The elegant melody and spare accompaniment add to the power of the text, but it is undoubtedly the text that carries much of the impact.
Sometimes, though, music and lyrics are equal partners. Willie Colón is a songwriter, bandleader and performer who creates rich, complex, danceable songs, often with a strong cultural or social overtones. His lyrics and his percussion often draw on the African roots of the Caribbean and Central American cultures extolled in his songs. With such a solid base, Colón’s collaboration with the highly charismatic singer Héctor Lavoe produced songs that are satisfyingly theatrical without tipping over into hysteria; my favourite among them is Aguanile, which begins with a chant to Yemayá (the goddess of the salt waters in the Santería pantheon) and incorporates the mix of Christian and Yoruba influences at the heart of Santería practice, in which Lavoe had an active interest. It is less of a song, perhaps, than a series of cries and incantations, but one that incorporates words and images that are immediately evocative to anyone familiar with the traditions at its heart; invoking the nails of the cross, the crucifixion, the shaking of the earth (implying perhaps the final trumpet) all while repeating the incantation Aguanile may may, in homage to the Orisha Elegua. (This is extremely difficult to describe and I would recommend that you listen to it here, where you can also see a rather lovely photomontage.) More accessible – and coincidentally easier to translate – is the anthemic Che Che Colé, which is a perfect expression of the spirit of Panamericanism that pervades Colón’s work:
Oye, tu sentado allá/ pareces venezolano/ Ven aqui, vamo’ a bailar/ que todos somos hermanos/ Lo bailen en Venezuela/ lo bailan en Panama/ Este ritmo es africano/ y dondequiera va acabar.
(Hey, you seated over there/ you look Venezuelan/ Come here, we’re gonna dance/ because we are all brothers/ They dance it in Venezuela/ They dance it in Panama/ This rhythm is African/ and it will end up wherever.)
Che Che Colé is one of many salsa songs which may sound like just another fun Latin dance song to the uninitiated, but which hold a wealth of information in their lyrics. Speaking for myself, when I first began to dance and listen to salsa I had little Spanish and knew only that I enjoyed the music. As my Spanish improved I began to realise that, for example, Ruben Blades’ songs often told stories about urban poverty, crime, racial inequality and the loss of hope; that Héctor Lavoe’s outgoing, showmanlike performance style gave a whole new dimension to lyrics that were often bittersweet or angry; or indeed that Willie Colón’s songs often carried such a strong message of Latin brotherhood and social justice. I’m still realising.
But then – staying with the theme of dance music – there are entirely different cases where the music is not only the stronger partner, but the words almost seem like just another instrumental line. The Cameroonian Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa (first recorded in 1972 as a B-side) springs to mind here. Its hypnotic chanted refrain – mama-ko, mama-sa, mako-makossa – has been used by Fania All Stars, Michael Jackson, Jay-Z and Rihanna. It has become one of the most recognisable motifs in modern songwriting without the majority of people who hear it ever having a clue what it means (for those interested, the word makossa is Duala for dance). You could say the same of Tito Puente’s cha cha chá classic Oye Como Va (composed in 1963 and later covered by Santana), with its single repeated line:
Oye como va mi ritmo, bueno pa’ gozar, mulata.
(Listen to how my rhythm goes, it’s good for dancing/partying, mulatta.)
The words may be part of the musical woodwork; but don’t be fooled into thinking they are not necessarily significant. Repeating a particular phrase over and over is a common thing in certain types of song. In Afro-Cuban music, for example, you will frequently hear repeated chants such as Ave Maria morena (Hail dark-haired Mary) and the now familiar Aguanile may may. The meaning of these short phrases is rarely apparent to those outside the cultural frame of reference, but it is worth learning them. Understanding transforms the listening experience from passive to active, the dancing experience from learned to felt.
Is there a conclusion to this rambling? Well, writing this article has certainly made me re-evaluate some of my assumptions. I initially had the idea that song lyrics could and should be understood in their own right, independently of the musical setting, and to some extent I still do believe this; songwriters such as Kristofferson and Bogle (and Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others) often cleave to the structures and conventions of poetry and many of their creations can be considered as such. But in other cases, it would be potentially both counterproductive and unfair to take this approach. Not because the lyrics of a Wille Colón, a Manu Dibango or even a band like KISS are inherently of lesser value, but because they use words differently. Their lyrics cannot be divorced from the elements of music and performance that make their songs what they are. For such an ancient and varied art as songwriting, there can be no unified approach.
The pic of salsa notes is from Wikimedia commons and distributed under the GNU Free Documentation licence.
* Yes, yes, I know.