I Don’t Understand the Words to These Songs, but I Love Them Anyway

Curse you, NPR Happy Hour.

A few weeks ago, I was out for a walk and needed something to listen to, so I tuned to that podcast to see what the hosts thought of Avengers Infinity War (they liked it)—and got an unexpected gift.

The hosts were talking about what made them happy that week. One of them recommended a remix of “Stop Me From Falling” by Kylie Minogue, featuring a Cuban group named Gente de Zona. Minogue—who had a hit with a cover of “The Locomotion”—was aiming for something like David Byrne’s “Loco de Amor” from his Rei Momo album, a mix of Talking Head’s style of pop with Brazilian tunes (think Graceland in Brazil).

Instead, she got a hot mess of wicked awesomeness. The video features people dancing in the middle of downtown Havana, having a great time and singing with gusto.

It’s a song you can’t stop listening to. Or at least, I can’t stop listening to. Even when I don’t know what the people are singing about. That all led me down a rabbit hole of songs in languages I don’t speak but love to listen to.  

Here are a few of my favorites:

La Gozedera, Gente de Zona 

This hit from a Cuba reggaeton band (the music is a Caribbean form of hip hop) is about a starting a giant party across most of South American and the Caribbean. At least that’s what Google tells me. The video has more people dancing in Havana and a guest appearance from Marc Anthony.  

Dusted and God Bless Africa, from Zifa

 A pair of songs from Swedish musician Michael “Zifa” Eriksson. Eriksson grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was a classmate of my friend Twyla, a missionary kid. Dusted (Nabouyo) is a little bit ABBA and a bit of little Graceland. The song is a mix of English and Lingala (I believe)—and I have no idea what he’s singing about. I think he’s giving the Devil a kick in the seat of his pants.  The song is dance-able and blast.

Zifa and his band also covered “God Bless Africa” or “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” a hymn written in 1897 by South African poet. Here Zifa sings it with a couple choirs at an event honoring musical legend Miriam Makeba. The song became an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement and still remains powerful.

Wake Me Up  (Mariachi version), Postmodern Jukebox

This song’s a bit of cheating, in that it’s a cover of Wake Me Up by Avicii, which has already been covered in English. Still, they’re singing in Spanish and I don’t speak that language, so it counts. And it’s great fun.

Estoy Aqui, Shakira

Back in the 1990s, I had a job running a college residence hall while I was in grad school.  My students loved Shakira, especially this song.  There’s even a Portuguese version. How awesome is that?

Tryggare kan ingen vara/Children of the Heavenly Father

One of the first hymns I learned when my family started going to a Protestant church in the 1970s was this song, often song in Swedish at baptisms and funerals. It’s the most beautiful hymn ever, written by Lena Sandell-Berg, after the death of her father. The hymn is lovely in English but far better in Swedish.

 Bonus track:

You know what’s even better than singing a song in a language you don’t understand? Listening to someone else do it. With that, I give you “Una Paloma Blanca” by the Dutch Band, The George Baker Selection. It’s in English and Spanish—and sung with gusto. It’s another hot mess of awesome.