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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 10 - Sung and unsung: singers and songs of the non-English-speaking world


The moment we step outside the Anglo-American popular music area we are left with a myriad of traditions and stars, some of whom are world famous but a far greater number of whom enjoy fame, even adulation, within their own countries but are now beginning to be appreciated on the world stage. Some of these singers and their traditions are in a state of permanent reinvention (Bollywood, for example), others represent individual strands within a well-established national heritage. Only a small selection can be presented here but the joy of discovery can continue well after reading about this handful (on the whole, the better they are known the less needs to be written about them here). We begin by a brief look at singing in Germany and France, then we examine two major non-European vocal cultures: Egyptian singing as personified by Umm Kulthūm, and the phenomenon of Bollywood. As an indication of the variety of singing to be found across the globe, we have taken two circles of latitude – the 42nd (north) and 22nd (south) parallels – and included brief snapshots of some of the vocal cultures to be found along these imaginary lines which connect Spain to China and Mozambique to Brazil. Part of the discovery is realising that many of the singers in these genres and territories have had a greater worldwide impact than their more circumscribed fame suggests, and this can only increase with the power of the World Wide Web.

On the strength of their musical artistry, poetic gifts and immense charisma it seems strange and unjust that these singers are less well known than a great many inferior anglophone superstars and one is left wondering if it all might come down simply to the matter of language. Yet several other major world languages are involved in the ensuing discussion, including German, French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. The small sample, the criteria for selection and the argument that the singers are not as well known as they might be are all somewhat contentious.