Music is why we do this. Across all languages and cultures, the emotions contained in songs have the purpose of connecting to the listener. Regardless of the dialect used to convey their message, musicians and listeners both understand that music itself is the universal language. This language can connect people across the globe, sharing appreciation for the art we love.
The meaning of a song is seldom solely contained within its words. As music moves along its journey, any listener regardless of fluency can understand the sonic movements on a primal level. We all understand momentum, rising, falling, jumping, crashing, loud, quiet, soft, harsh and everything in between, all of which can be conveyed regardless of spoken language. Music’s ebbs and flows are rife with meaning, begging to be unpacked, so this begs the question: what music has been moving The Music Den?
My taste in genre has evolved significantly in the last few years. The library that consisted of primarily EDM has shifted into more pop-centric music as I explore my love for foreign music. This exploration has led me to the global east, where I found personal resonance with a lot of Japanese and Korean songs. Despite me knowing only a little bit of Japanese and an even smaller amount of Korean, I am fond of how the language carries the lyrics.
Stepping back to an earlier time, Wednesday Campanella’s album Superman was one of my first favorite and memorable experiences. The funky, deep rolling bass lines in some of the tracks paired with an assortment of small sounds to pick up on makes for an engaging journey. One beloved song of mine is Shakushain from the album Zipangu. The percussive instruments slowly build up into such a wonderful payoff, that I implore those reading to listen below.
What brings everything together is the performance of former group member KOM_I. Her vocals and rap skills combined with the energetic and playful choreography in the song/music video Aladdin are entertaining. The project known as Wednesday Campanella since then has always been interesting to me, as most of the songs seem to rap or sing about eccentric oddities like a bowling alley or random city names. Even with the current singer Utaha, it’s still enjoyable to follow despite it having a sort of new direction now.
Out of the many variations of genres I listen to, Korean RnB has become one of my favorites. It’s as if the RnB phase that happened in the U.S. during the 2000’s has been delayed, and is just now being branched off over there in Korea. That genre of music invokes comfort from my childhood for me, and so its calming and interesting to listen to something that to me seems to be frozen in time and then reborn in a unique way.
Just as with Japanese music, it’s enjoyable to listen to the language and hear sounds that I never really hear in my everyday life. This is particularly the case with some beautifully sung pieces like JANG SO YEON’s single, Let me write a love song. It opens with an ethereal, glowing piano-like sound accompanied by a soft voice, and then unfolds into a more percussive and powerful statement.
Another delightful song is Secret by Sujo, which I use as one of my testing tracks. It again slowly opens with a piano and vocals, but then swells into a section with background vocals and many instruments to focus on. There even is a part with very soft bells and strings in the middle that is such a joy to listen to.
A more recent Korean song I’ve encountered is from a solo artist named HONDAM called BAEKCHIMI which has very interesting plucky sounds and vocal cadence. I haven’t really heard anything like it, especially considering the “drop” later on.
There was a time in my adolescence wherein lyrics were the primary thing I looked for in music. I was listening to folk punk and emo music, often bereft of verbal nuance or sleight of hand, pretty much exclusively. I wanted to be beat over the head with meaning, and these songs, very clearly aimed at a specific person, place, or institution definitely resonated with me… for a time, anyway. After a while though, I found myself getting fatigued with how inflexible the meaning of these songs were. If I wanted to listen to a song I enjoyed, I grew tired of also having to be plopped into whatever exact emotional circumstance the songwriter was in (especially because in most cases, they were screaming the words at me in almost annoyingly intelligible English).
Eventually, I moved into what I’d call my “I Am The Walrus” phase, where I began more and more to value music with lyrics that either didn’t have super-specific meaning, or lyrics that had no inherent meaning at all. Nowadays, I think a piece of music that allows the listener to ascribe their meaning to it, instead of dictating specific meaning to the listener, is more able to emotionally resonate. And that brings me to the phase that began around 2016, where I started to absorb music from around the globe and came to understanding in earnest the value that music can have even if I don’t understand the language. It moves me based on its melody, harmony, texture, and rhythm; whatever meaning I ascribe to it is based largely on that.
João Gilberto’s Amoroso was one of the first things I happened upon in this new phase and it has stuck with me, and will continue to do so as long as I live. Gilberto is well known for his vocals on Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema), and though this was all I, too, knew him for prior, he would soon become the man responsible for what is one of my favorite albums of all time.
Amoroso is a record comprised of jazz and bossa nova standards, tenderly crooned by Gilberto in his preternaturally delicate and breathy voice, while lovingly accompanied by Claus Ogermann’s expansive, yet never overwhelming, orchestral arrangement. From the opening moments of this record, you know you are in for something as effortless, familiar, and calming as waves rolling and receding on a beach. It is a record primarily oriented with tranquility, peace, ease, and love… and I say this knowing nothing about what the songs actually mean.
In the silken exhalation of the strings, the gentle brushes of the drums, and sometimes jovial, sometimes sullen skipping of the guitar, I wager it’d be nearly impossible for anyone listening to this record to have trouble understanding exactly what Gilberto and Ogermann are trying to get across. Their arrangement of Caminhos Cruzados in particular, speaks to me in a language separate from the spoken or written word. It sounds to me like a lost soul, trudging through life in solitary, lamenting a love that they know only insofar as they know the lack thereof. Around the midpoint of the song, the arrangement is joined by the quiet tickling of an ascending piano that almost feels like this same soul hoping in earnest for the possibility of connection and love… while fully acknowledging the unlikeliness of such a blessing.
Is any of this what the song is about? I have no idea. But I’m not sure my attachment and understanding to this song would be nearly as vivid, imaginative, or lasting if I knew the intended meaning. I always associate this song with a certain optimism despite dour environs or circumstances, and who knows if I’d have such a memorable feeling if the words were there dictating what I ought to feel, instead of allowing me to decide on my own terms based on sound alone?
Another discovery with a totally different emotional response is Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s Mambo Nassau, an energetic beat-pop record that reminds me of Talking Heads if they were female fronted, French, and somehow even more erratic. Mambo Nassau is erratic to the point of possibly being overwhelming to some, but to me it has all of the hallmarks of an incredibly engaging record and doesn’t have a boring moment in it’s 46 minutes of run-time.
If Amoroso is the gentle crashing of waves on the shore, Mambo Nassau is no-look-backflipping off of a cliff into rocky ocean waters and hitting every funky branch on the way down. The bass is bouncy and electrifying, the guitars twist and contort to fill in the scant holes left unoccupied by the incendiary, unyielding drums, and as a whole, the package here is absolutely relentless and tons of fun.
My favorite example on the album is likely Slipped Disc, which sounds like... well it sounds like absolute craziness. Drums are pushing and pulling the whole of the arrangement, guitars spend equal time quacking like a duck and falling down the stairs, all while the bass provides the arrangement a much-needed anchor to keep the whole piece coherent but simultaneously danceable as heck.
While I, perhaps obviously, don’t speak French, this is an instance of the music being so powerful I don’t even think I’d care much about the words even if they were in English... Funny enough though, Mercier Descloux sings most of the album in a chaotic broken English filled with non-words and meaningless exclamations, opaque enough that most of the lyrics from the album aren’t even published anywhere online. This record is another shining example, music’s meaning can be conveyed and enjoyed wholly apart from the words used to decorate it, and in this case, the meaning is: go nuts, you beautiful disaster.
French is a beautiful language. It’s very flowy and romantic, with few harsh sounds. I took French classes in high school; though I could not tell you where I left them. My French teacher was on the younger side, and as such had similar music tastes to the class. One of the groups, Les Nubians, stuck out to me among the older R&B playlists she shared. Sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart spoke to me in harmonies that didn’t need to be in my native tongue.
Princesses Nubiennes, released in 1998, is a masterpiece of jazz, R&B, and soul with African influences throughout. Makeda is one of the more mainstream tracks. Though a French-language song in its entirety, it fit so well among the R&B artists I listen to, that I was able to get by with a basic grasp of French. The music translated itself to me effortlessly. Tabou, a cover remix of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo, steals the spot as my favorite on the album. I absolutely love Sade and this homage is pure R&B bliss. A few years later I discovered a rendition of this track that features Black Thought of The Roots, and that made it all the more special. I highly recommend checking it out.
Nujabes is an artist I became fond of through the show Samurai Champloo, like many other fans of Adult Swim. Its opening song Battlecry is a perfect compliment to the spirit of the show. It showed me the perfect blend of down tempo, hip hop, jazz, electronic and other elements that Nujabes used. It formed the basis of what many consider the “lo-fi” genre to be. I heard his music before this via an iTunes-based algorithm binge of J Dilla, but it wasn’t until being completely enthralled by it on TV that I delved deeper.
Shiki No Uta from the Samurai Champloo soundtrack was my anthem for like a year. I kid you not. I listened to that song every day. As soon as that bassline drops, it’s a signal to chill. MINMI’s vocals are like cirrus clouds; a light and airy compliment to a beautiful track. It was a while before I translated the lyrics, but to my surprise the warm, seasonal days I always imagined are reflected. The subtle undercurrent of somberness, like recounting memories came through in ways that should be impossible since I do not speak Japanese. It was a powerful reminder that there are things the voice does beyond simply conveying words.
As I mentioned last week, I tend to hyper-focus on albums. It was about a year before I wanted to listen to anything outside of the Samurai Champloo soundtracks. Modal Soul and Metaphorical Music worked their way into every late-night study session. Whether it was instrumentals or guest voices, Nujabes got me through a lot. His passing in 2010 was truly sad. I sometimes have a problem with posthumous music. Was it truly what the artist wanted us to hear? 2011’s Spiritual State and 2015’s Luv(Sic) Hexalogy album playthroughs were wonderful reminders to me that Nujabes was still with us in song. I am truly grateful I got to hear them. It's crazy how he and Dilla were taken from us in similarly early fashion.
When you understand that you do not understand, you seek understanding. Somewhere in that web we connect. Music resonates and we simplify the vibrations. Full bodied breaths in step with our heartbeats help us digest dialects. Lexicons give way to ledger lines and we leisurely listen.