Which side of the Atlantic do you think this R&B singer comes from? Do you imagine him flying home to Manchester, Montreal or Miami as soon as his European tour is over? His vowels, his name, his beard or the make of his guitar might give you a clue:
Or you might be surprised: Alberto Anaut is from Madrid. Yes, he is. Not a drop of British or American blood in his veins. He didn’t grow up in Gibraltar. No live-in nanny from Detroit. Just a love of the R&B and soul music played by his dad throughout his childhood.
Lucky Alberto had plenty of time to drink in the music and the words together, pure from the source. As a musical language. He became bilingual: in Spanish and soul/R&B.
As he puts it, in Spanish, in this interview: he took in soul and R&B music just as a baby takes in milk from its mother. Most importantly – the ‘language’ of R&B set up home in his head long before his English teacher arrived to confuse things.
When Alberto speaks English, he has a Spanish accent. That’s down to his English teacher. But when he sings in English, he sounds as if he was born on the bayou. That’s down to his love for his dad’s music.
How has Alberto managed to keep his singing true to its R&B origins, uninfluenced by the English he speaks? He’s helped himself by choosing to write his own R&B songs, in English. When you write songs in a foreign language, you have to carve and craft that language to fit your music. In its pure form. As sound. You draw the language closer to your heart when you weave it into your own music. You come to understand how every syllable affects your song.
In the video, you can hear Alberto saying things like, “Come on guys, let’s hit it,” even though he and his musicians are all Spanish. It’s not an affectation. Once Alberto’s ‘inside’ the music, he is pure R&B singer, down to the tips of his toes. He whoops, stretches his vowels and ghosts his consonants in all the right places. He sounds as if he’s spent his whole life in America. He inhabits the language. He owns it.
If you’re being super picky, you might say you can hear a Dutch touch when he sings the or that – with a bit too much of a closed d instead of soft ð. We say: American singers have idiosyncratic touches to their voices too, and it’s not a distraction. So let it go.
Alberto, like this reggae singer is a perfect example of what’s possible if you let the music of the language flow in through your ears and out through your mouth, as pure sound, untainted by the formalised English you learn at school. It works with other languages too: look at Jennifer Grout. She can’t speak Arabic, but she sings it impressively. Here’s her rendition of an Umm Kulthum song.
Think of how you acquired your own native tongue and your perfect accent in it as a young child – no lessons were involved. Indeed, if you want your children to sing R&B, soul, jazz or anything in English when they grow up, show them how much you love the music by bringing it into their life while they’re little. Before they get to school. They’ll thank you for it later.
If you’re an adult, how can Alberto Anaut’s experience help you to sing better English?
You can’t turn the clock back. Sorry. But you can learn to treat the English that you sing as a different language from the English that you’ve learnt to speak. A different, related language. As Alberto does, so effectively.
Try this when you find a new English song that you want to cover:
- listen to the original version, 3 or 4 times at least, without trying to sing along. Just listen. Why? Because as soon as you start singing along, you’ll change the pronunciation. Let the language enter your head and settle there as pure as possible. Like snow.
- don’t ‘read’ the lyrics in your head as you listen. Let the English language find its shape in your head as pure sound, not written words.
- English spelling is a spider web – it will trap you.
- don’t sing the words as your English teacher told you they ‘should’ be pronounced. Spoken English is your English teacher’s department. The English of song is a different, wilder beast. It doesn’t live in classrooms or English exams.
- let the music be your teacher when you sing in English.
Wait until you have the song clear in your head as pure sound before you turn to the lyrics. The written word is your reference point, not your starting point:
- scan the lyrics to make sure that you haven’t missed any ghost consonants – pay attention to the ends of words and the plural s. You’ll confuse your audience if you leave them out.
- read the lyrics to understand: who am I singing to? What do I want from them? Get your intention clear in your head and the words will mould themselves to achieve it. If you believe it.
- you don’t need to understand every single word of the lyrics, but you do need to understand their syntax.
If you’ve written the song yourself, it’s a bit like doing your own cooking. No need to read the ingredients label if you cooked the food yourself. If you’re singing a cover, the lyrics are your ingredients label. They’ll tell you everything that’s in the song, so that you know what you’re singing.
Keep the English of song and the English of the classroom in separate rooms in your head. They are different languages.
Let us know how you get on.
P.S. If you’d like to hear a singer who listened to Bob Marley as a child and just like Alberto, drank the sound pure from the source, have a listen here.
© Sing Better English, 2014