Foreign Language Hits

September 23, 2007 at 10:42 am 1 comment

The popular music charts over the years have been very much dominated by vocal music. There is something that about the human voice that is arguably superior to any musical instrument. The addition of lyrics adds further to the listening experience. Lyrics allow the sharing of common experiences and emotions, and in the hands of a master lyricist blend seamlessly with the music into what can be a significant aesthetic event for the listener.

Much of my interest in instrumental music that was sufficiently popular to chart is rooted in the overwhemingly greater overall popularity of vocal material. What it is about these instrumental hits that allowed them to achieve popularity in spite of the handicap of being instrumental?

The simple answer seems to be that the music has truly exceptional content of some kind. Perhaps it is the melody, the rhythm, the harmony, or the interplay of all of these that is so compelling that the lack of words or a vocalist doesn’t matter.

Foreign language hits straddle a middle ground between conventional vocal hits and instrumentals. There are lyrics, but since they are unintelligible, their meaning is not a factor. They offer a human voice and the emotional content it can convey – but that emotional content is fairly unsophisticated, entirely dependent on inflection (since the words cannot be understood). Therefore, I think it likely that foreign language hits may be more like instrumentals, relying more on the qualities of the music.

Two excellent examples of this are Nel Blu Di Pinto di Blu (better known in the English-speaking world as Volare), which was a number one hit in 1958, and Sukiyaki, a number one hit in 1963.

Nel Blu Di Pinto Di Blu (Volare)

Nel Blu Di Pinto di Blu was written by Domenico Modugno and Franco Migliacci. It won a European song-writing contest in 1958. The word “volare” is the infinitive form of the verb and means “to fly”. Modugno also took the song to #1 in 1958. Here is a video of him performing it, though this version is not identical to the released single.

This song has to be one of the most covered in history, and reached the top-40 again in versions by Dean Martin and Bobby Rydell. It is also associated with Sergio Franchi whose version was featured in commercials for the Plymouth Volare which was sold between 1976 and 1980.

I am including a translation of the original Italian lyrics here, because the English lyrics – while reasonably faithful to the original in spirit – are fairly different.

I think that such a dream will never return
I painted my hands and my face with blue
Then suddenly, I was taken by the wind
And I began to fly in the endless sky…
Flying….oh oh…singing…oh oh oh oh!
in the blue sky, painted in blue.
so glad to be up there

And I was flying and flying, happily higher than the sun and more
While the world was slowly fading away down there
A sweet music was singing only for me

Flying….oh oh…singing…oh oh oh oh!
in the blue sky, painted in blue.

so glad to be up there

But all the dreams fall away in the dawn because
the moon brings them away when it falls
But I’m still dreaming in your beautiful eyes
that are blue like the sky painted with stars

Flying….oh oh…singing…oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,

so glad to be there

And I don’t stop flying happily higher than the sun and more
While the world is slowly disappearing in your blue eyes
Your voice is a sweet music that sing for me

Flying….oh oh…singing…oh oh oh oh!

In the blue sky of your blue eyes, so glad to be down here
In the blue sky of your blue eyes, so glad to be down here with you

Here are links to review and listen to my arrangement of Nel Blu Di Pinto di Blu:

Notation Stream Mp3

This tune truly is one my personal all-time favorites. It is beautifully crafted with a captivating melody and very interesting harmonies. The harmonies are fairly sophisticated, with quite a bit of chromatic motion and changes of key. My arrangement is fairly conventional, though with what is basically a latin/samba rhythm there is a different feel from the original.

Sukiyaki (I Look Up When I Walk)

Sukiyaki was written by Rokusuke Ei and Hachidai Nakamura and released by Kyu Sakamoto. It climbed to the top of the US charts in 1963. It original title translates as “I look up when it walk”. The title Sukiyaki was presumably chosen as the Japanese word most likely to be familiar to Americans. Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish with beef and vegetables – here is a recipe.

This song as well has an incredibly catchy melody, and the original benefits from a vocal performance that conveys considerable emotion – even to those who cannot understand the Japanese lyrics:

Kyu Sakamoto was a very popular performer in Asia, and during his USA popularity appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was killed in an airplane crash in 1985.

Again, the English lyrics people are likely to know are not particularly faithful to the original, so a translation of the original Japanese follows.

I look up when I walk
So the tears won’t fall
Remembering those happy spring days
But tonight I’m all alone

I look up when I walk
Counting the stars with tearful eyes
Remembering those happy summer days
But tonight I’m all alone

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies above the sky

I look up when I walk
So the tears won’t fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I’m all alone

Remembering those happy autumn days
But tonight I’m all alone

Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up when I walk
So the tears won’t fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I’m all alone

Here are links to review and listen to my arrangement of Sukiyaki:

Notation Stream Mp3

This song is an interesting contrast to Volare. It features a simple, primarily pentatonic melody and diatonic harmonies. My arrangement is very different from the original. I’m not sure what possessed me to set a Japanese song over a Reggae feel.

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Entry filed under: Guitar, Music, Oldies, Vintage Instrumentals.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. r li  |  November 6, 2007 at 10:20 am

    There was a venezuelan group that recorded a great guitar instrumental in 1964. Its title was “Triste” (“sad”, in Spanish). Does anybody know about it and how to get it?

    Thank you

    Reply

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