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We know that cabaret and saloon singers tend to favor songs from what I and others tend to think of as the “Great American Songbook.” However, like the U.S.A. itself, a unique nation in that it is made up of an incredibly diverse population, the “Great American Songbook” contains many contributions from songwriters all over the world.
Even back as early as the 1920s and 1930s, songwriters from Cuba and Mexico were finding enthusiastic audiences in El Norte with works such as Siboney, Frenesi, Adios, Perfidia (the last two of which were big hits for the Glenn Miller Orchestra), and others. During the Second World War, a popular German song, Lili Marlene, became the first song ever sung by soldiers on both sides of a conflict.
After the war, Edith Piaf introduced popular French songs such as La Vie En Rose and Je Ne Regrette Rien. Well into the late 20th century, songs by Michel LeGrand and Charles Aznavour remained a staple of the popular repetoire. Italian-American entertainers of the late 1940s and early 1950s brought us some wonderful songs like the haunting Non Dimenticar, Vicino Mare and Amore e Core. In 1963, we even had a Japanese import reach the American Top 40 with Kyu Sukamoto’s rendition of Ue o Muite Aruko (better known as Sukyaki)…and during the depths of the Cold War, a song by a long-forgotten Russian tunesmith, used as the sign-off music for a Soviet radio station, entered the popular American repertoire in the form of Podmoskovnye Vechera, better known as Moscow Nights.
And of course, who could ever forget the splash made by a certain Brazilian in the 1960s by the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim?
In 1960, a song by the Greek songwriter Manos Hadjidakis won the first Academy Award for Best Song ever given to a foreign film. The title of the song is Ta Pedia tou Pirea. You know it better by its English title, Never on Sunday. That English title was the title of the film, and the English lyric was written by Billy Towne.
It’s not a translation, however.
The original title – and the original Greek lyric by Hadjidakis – means something quite different than Towne’s lyric (“Oh you can kiss me on a Monday, a Monday, a Monday is very, very good / Or you can kiss me on a Tuesday a Tuesday a Tuesday / in fact I wish you would”). Ta Pedia tou Pirea actually translates as “The Children of Piraeus,” which is what the original Greek lyric is about.
I don’t blame Towne (or any other English language lyricist); song lyrics are extremely difficult to translate verbatim – and vice versa. I found myself having this problem when I attempted to do a Spanish language translation of Stephen Sondheim’s lyric for Maria from West Side Story. Ultimately, I came up with a Spanish version that had little in common with Sondheim’s original, but that I thought captured the basic spirit of his words.
That’s the best that even very accomplished lyricists can hope to do. But it brings us to the subject of today’s tips, addressed to cabaret singers who are performing in an increasingly pluralistic and multi-cultural society:
Should you sing a foreign song in English or the original language?
There’s nothing wrong with singing a lyric in a language that few (if any) of your audience understands. Quite the contrary; in my own experience, I have found that audiences actually appreciate it (and if there is someone listening who does speak that language, you have automatically earned a fan for life).
But . . . there are some things to keep in mind.
Tip #1: A little goes a long way. If you are singing for an English-speaking audience, consider that foreign language songs are like Tabasco sauce on food – a small amount makes it very tasty, while too much can make it unpalatable.
Tip #2: Don’t start the evening singing in a foreign language. You’ll lose your audience right away. If you do decide to sing Love Is Blue in its original French version (L’amour Est Bleu) and your audience is primarily English speaking, program the number toward the middle of your set. You may even want to do a short set of two or three songs in a given language – or multiple languages – as part of a theme (say, traveling the world). But again – don’t overdo it.
Tip #3: Offer part of the song in English. There are a few different ways to do this. The standard way is to sing part of it in English – perhaps the first time through – and sing another part of it in the original language, like Dean Martin in his classic recording of Volare. However, if the fact that the English lyric and the original have little to do with each other (as is often the case) disturbs you, here’s another idea: sing the song in the original language – then, with your pianist or combo playing softly in the background, recite the actual translation for your audience. This takes some acting skills, but if handled deftly, can be very effective.
What you probably don’t want to do is simply give your audience the English translation before or after the song. It’s always best to integrate it into your performance.
Here is my favorite rendition of Vicino Mare, performed by the late Al Martino in the 1972 film The Godfather.
Have you ever programmed foreign language songs into one or more of your sets? How did you handle it? Leave us a note about it in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers!
Hope these Tuesday cabaret tips help–let us know what other topics you’d like to see us cover here, and we’ll do our best to work through them!
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Till next time,
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Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:
Tuesdays: Cabaret Tip Tuesday
Wednesdays: Ask A Cabaret Question
Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer
Fridays: Cabaret Through Time