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