When you sing in English, to an audience that isn’t fluent in the language, you can’t rely on the exact meaning of the words to carry the weight of the song for you. You need to weave meaning into the sounds you sing. Each syllable of sound is a thread of colour in the tapestry of your song, for you to highlight or to hide. For the benefit of that single audience member who doesn’t speak English, or for the whole audience if your microphone’s not as good as it should be.
Watch Oum, blending soul and jazz with her own gnawa and sahrawi traditions, to beautiful effect. You don’t need to understand the words to ‘understand’ the song. So, without the ‘meaning’, where is the meaning? I’d say that some of it is in the way Oum extends her vowel sounds until they float away, like smoke:
It works for Oum in English too. Remember, she was born in Casablanca, not Canterbury, but she chose to join a gospel choir when she was a teenager, partly because of her love for Whitney Houston. It sounds to me as if Oum ‘feels’ English as a musical language, rather than filtering it through a destructive layer of English classes and exams. Here she is, singing in English. You can tell that she holds the language close to her heart:
Oum reminds me of Alberto Anaut and Mitchell Brunings. Why? Because each of them has managed to allow the English language free passage straight into their souls, rather than into their heads. Just as a child growing up in an English-speaking country would.
They’re not judging or trying to get the words ‘right’ (which is the best way to get them wrong). Oum, Alberto and Mitchell aren’t trying to please an English teacher inside their heads, they’re pleasing the music instead.
English is a collection of sounds, designed to communicate meaning. It has an internal logic and an internal music. Your job, as a singer of English, is to weave the natural music of the language into the fabric of your particular song.
In an English class, or in an English exam, it’s wise to please your teacher. On stage, it’s wise to please the music.
By the way – the gorgeous carpets on display in Oum El-Ghaït Benessahraoui’s first video are made by the Saharan women of Carpet of Life . They weave carpets on traditional looms, in the settlement of M’hamid El Ghizlane, using remnants and collections of personal clothing sent by Western customers who want a memory carpet made for them. It’s a lovely idea and they’re lovely carpets.
© Sing Better English, 2016