Englishing Brazil for Export

If you wanted to encourage a localist English squirrel to try their first nibble of Brazil nut, what would you use to tempt them closer? Macadamia or hazelnuts?

Sergio Mendes knew that the 1960s’ English speaking world needed a touch of the familiar to entice them gently into his music. I’ll talk a bit more about that in a minute. First, a question: in the Mas Que Nada video, you see two women lip-synching to the vocals, but you’re hearing only one of their voices, multi-tracked. For fun, which of the two looks as if they own that voice?

The video is the perfect blend of familiar and exotic. Two American girls in mini-skirts and Christmas tree earrings framing an intriguing Brazilian percussionist. Palm trees in the background.

Sergio Mendes chose an American vocalist for his new band, Brasil 66, knowing that she’d sing Portuguese in the open, rounded way that English speakers use for their own language. She learnt Portuguese phonetically and forms the sounds of Portuguese in the centre of her mouth, as if they were English words. She opens her mouth wide to let the sounds escape. As if they were English.

A Brazilian singer would have tipped the sounds forward and formed them near the front of their mouth. Watch Sergio singing along at the piano. He doesn’t open his mouth anywhere near as wide as the American women do, even though he’s singing the same words. It’s subtle, but it’s the difference between ‘foreignly inaccessible’ and ‘exotically singalong-able’ to a 1960s’ English speaking audience.

Sung English-style, from the centre of the mouth, escaping through an open mouth, Portuguese words like sambar open up into something like sambah, the Afro-Brazilian maracatu sounds like an accessible ma-rack-a-tooo. It all becomes as friendly and fascinating to the 1960s’ American audience as a giant anteater in a zoo.

If you listen to the original version of Mas Que Nada by Jorge Ben Jor, you can hear the difference. Jorge sings, Brazilian-style, a much slimmer, tighter pronunciation of the Portuguese than Lani Hall’s, He’s singing for Brazilians, not North Americans. He’s singing from the front of his mouth, with his lips enclosing and shaping the sounds as they emerge:

If English isn’t your native language : when you hear English/American tourists speaking your language, there’s a ’roundness’ and slightly lazy, ‘foreign’ feel to the sound, isn’t there? That’s because they’re forming the sounds of your language in the centre of their mouth, as if it were a version of English.

If English tourists sound odd to you, remember you’ll sound odd to English native speakers if you let the sounds of English resonate anywhere other than in the centre of your mouth.

Watch English native speakers sing. Watch their relaxed cheeks and their relaxed mouths as they let the vowels out. Watch yourself in the mirror as you sing the same words. Do you look relaxed?

Don’t overdo it. Don’t over-round your words in English. Its subtle, but it’s important. Think relaxed control.

By the way: I haven’t forgotten the question. Which of the women looks as if she is singing along to her own double-tracked voice?

© Sing Better English, 2015


9 thoughts on “Englishing Brazil for Export”

  1. To me, it looks like the woman in the golden dress and blue earrings is over-doing the pantomiming, since her actions are almost too “unrelaxed”. Also, I think the voice matches the brunette more…. is it actually the brunette whose voice it is?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Navi – yes, yes, you’re the winner. I’ll send you a Golden Brazil Nut as a prize. The brunette is Lani Hall, now married to Herb Alpert and still singing. It’s her voice that’s multi-tracked on Mas Que Nada.

      It’s funny isn’t it: the woman in the golden dress is much more eye-catching and I suppose she looks more classically North American (in comparison to the Brazilian men). She’s taller, paler and somehow looks more ‘modern’ with her interesting earrings. So she’s the tempting hazelnut for the nervous American squirrels of 1966. She’s Janis Hansen and she’s got a pretty good voice herself. Here she is singing lead vocal in Sergio Mendes’ 1967 version of ‘The Look of Lovehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ua-TfUU3R6I

      Would you connect that voice with how she looks?

      By the way – what did you think of the Black Raven song?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay! A golden Brazil Nut, eh? I’m not so keen on the normal kind, but maybe gold is better 😉

        I couldn’t watch the Black Raven song when I first read the post, since it “wasn’t available in my country” and searching on mobile is a pain…. but I’ve got it queued up now and will have a listen soon!

        SO true about the woman in the golden dress … it’s funny how even today people have expectations of how a performer should look. There was a Forbes interview of the richest self-made woman, a Chinese lady in commercial real estate, and some YouTuber commented on how ugly the reporter/interviewer was. I called him out on it (would a woman ever make a comment like that? Or am I just being sexist?) and he retorted by posing the question whether I wear make-up to work. Um, no. Wearing heels and other standard womanly garb is actually pretty rare as well for me…. Sheesh. Because people are on TV, or do music, they have to look a certain way. Ugh.

        Sorry for the rant – will write later with my thoughts on the Raven song!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ooooh, I love the Black Raven as a song and melody itself, without even looking up a translation of the lyrics. I listened to this version, if it’s available to view in the UK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovaDQjQqryo

        The singer’s voice is very strong, right from the beginning, so when toward the middle he lets is voice slide down, falling on the last note of a phrase…. Oh, it’s like a knife in the heart. I would have preferred, though, that he starts off a bit less “stable”, kind of half singing half speaking, or not holding onto notes very long. Then working up to his powerful, full voice. Then ending with the falling notes and a hint of the “weaker” singing style. I’ve experimented with it myself and find that people actually listen more closely – when it’s not overdone – because they innately want to “correct” the notes almost, like finishing someone else’s sentence when they trail off.

        Wonderful song! Thanks E. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for that, Navi – for the Black Raven and for your thoughts on listeners paying more attention when they feel drawn into a song by having to ‘fill in the gaps’ themselves. So it becomes a collaborative experience. not just performer and passive audience.

        It’s a bit like that thing that storytellers do when they speak quietly so that the audience has to pay real attention to catch the words. It only works if the storyteller has first convinced the audience that the story’s worth listening to! Otherwise it’s just annoying when you can’t hear clearly. I’d guess, when you sing, you must make a choice on when to use the technique – too soon and the audience just thinks there’s something wrong with the acoustics, too late and they’ve ‘got’ the song so they don’t bother to listen harder. There must be a sweet spot where quietness draws an audience closer into the song’s embrace. I’m guessing that the sweet spot shifts from audience to audience?

        By the way – as I’m so keen that you hear Pelageya singing Black Raven, try this version and see if it crosses country borders more efficiently. I think you’ll enjoy the harmonies: http://bit.ly/1OZWxwv (I’d turn the subtitles off because they’re a bit distracting)

        A local friend told me of the English version of the song – ‘Three Ravens’ or, the more gruesome Scottish version ‘Twa Corbies’. Lacking that Cossack ‘pride of the fallen soldier’ and feeling much more down to earth and cynical. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Ravens

        Ravens down here in Brighton just hop about on the beach, picturesquely and peaceably. We never see them doing anything remotely gory. They’re like Mafia men on holiday with the family.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Oh. My. Goddess. Wow.

        That was SO powerful, E! Four black-clad figures, all in a group. It felt like a mourning or spell casting or some kind of ceremony. Wow. And the constant note held / maintained by the synth was the kind of “attention keeping” factor, because one expects the note to change, one expects the same 3 or 4 chords in ubiquitous songs… you are ABSOLUTELY right about having to use the “soft voice” to attract attention at just the right times… I had a chill trickle down my spine even at the beginning, before it developed into 4-part harmonies…. Wow.

        I especially like how far back in the mouth the vowels are kept. Reminds me a bit of Latin Catholic mass, I think, because I’m drowning in nasally vowels and inconsistent pronunciations in American English all the time.

        Hahhaa…. Mafia crows on holiday with the children. That’s brilliant! 

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I would have said it was the taller one who was actually singing (partly because of her earrings and partly because the one with dark hair looks more Brazilian and I thought she might just have been put there to make the band more Brazilian-looking), but this seems like a trick question so I’ll go with Lani Hall (who I now know is the correct answer anyway). I’d also agree with Naví that Janis Hansen seems to be overacting a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder who arranged the camera angles – Janis Hansen is the one that the camera focuses on first and she’s usually shown facing the camera as she sings. Which all says – ‘look at me, I’m singing’. Also the Brazilian percussionist interacts far more with her.

      Interesting, eh? Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss of A&M records found Lani Hall for Sergio to provide an American feel to his music. I read that Sergio Mendes considered Mas Que Nada his big break http://n.pr/1OOTK97

      Liked by 1 person

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