Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Pig Speaks - Foreigners Singing in Asian Languages

What is the novelty of someone with European or African ancestry having the ability to speak or sing in an Asian language? Even when tensions exist between Asians and foreigners, there is always curiosity when a foreigner speaks the Asian language well. Thus the saying, "the pig speaks," used in Japan. There are many possible theories as to how a westerner comes to learn the Asian language and why this is so appealing for many Asians. I'll offer a few thoughts here.

I think there exists residuals of the "colonized mind" where, through years of colonization and general occupation by those in the West, the "native" subject see themselves and their culture as substandard compared to the West. Hence, when a foreigner speaks in an Asian language, it is made more significant than need be. The positive attention given by "natives" to such spectacles reveals their feelings of pride and gratitude that those in the "higher culture" would willingly choose to partake in the ways of their "lesser culture."

This I have witnessed with a singer named, Dalena. Overseas Vietnamese could not get enough of the image of a blond woman singing in their native toungue. Dalena is not mixed race nor married to a Vietnamese man which was rumored to explain her interest in Vietnamese. The real reason is that Dalena has the skill to imitate foreign languages to perfection. She can sing fluently in Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Japanese, French, Spanish and Hebrew. However, she is most known for her Vietnamese singing for which she has found resounding success within the Vietnamese Diaspora music industry of the 90s (see video below).

Dalena and Henry Truc

Other times it is because of heritage connection that stays in tact for generations that explains the "pig speaks" phenomenon. It could be that your grandmother who is full Japanese taught you archaic Japanese songs that only grannies know. Nevertheless, this unique experience exposed you to the Asian language at an early age. This is precisely the case with Jerome Charles White, Jr, better known by his stage name, Jero. Jero is 3/4 African American and 1/4 Japanese, but it is this smaller fraction that he's found affinity with. While in her care, Jero's Japanese grandmother taught him how to sing Enka, a genre of ballads from the 1940s that reflected the sorrows of post war reconstruction. Dressed in typical 20-something, trendy hip hop clothes consisting of baggie tees, jeans and baseball caps, Jero can belt out some truly moving Enka songs (as a Japanese friend relayed to me). Recently his debuted song shot up to #4 on the Japanese music charts; the first for an Enka song in years. Jero is serious about a future in the music career and now lives and performs in Japan. You can see a CNN documentary of him below.

Jero on CNN
Sometimes it is because certain institutional apparatus is in place that allows one to learn an Asian language to near fluency. As I have said many times, if you see a white boy speaking some relatively obscure foreign language, you can almost be certain he's a government employee such as CIA (see image to right), foreign service officer, or military interrogator. Or he is a Mormon missionary. All of the above have centers for intense foreign language training. The training is in the interest of the Westerners even if there is appearance of humanitarian work.

A good example is Muk (Octopus), a band made of four white Mormon boys who sing in Khmi (Cambodian language). In the tradition of mandatory missionary service, the Church of Later Day Saints assigned Trevor Wright, A. Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine and Joseph Peterson to two years in Cambodia. Their experience there left a huge mark and they returned to the country to make a documentary and even start a rock bank. Equipped with fluency in Khmi, a base, guitar, drums and trumpet, these men are now a music sensation. What started out as a joke when they commented one of their traveling photos could be a music cd cover (see left), snowballed into a pseudo-music career that has included national television appearances and tours. Sample of their singing is below.


I wrote about the past and current trends that involve Asians singing in English. But, who is to say that in the future Asian countries such and Hong Kong, Japan and Korea with their cantopop, J-pop, and K-pop respectively, won’t dominate the international pop music market. If so, then we may see Westerners singing in Asian languages having more mainstay value versus short-lived novelty appeal. Stephen Colbert ("neo-con" satirist of The Colbert Report) did a parody of a Rain (Korean pop sensation) K-pop video, with all the typical images such as; flipping a hoody, background dancers, running to where we don’t know, and screaming in anguish. Though it is a comedy skit, it speaks to the growing popularity of Asian pop music in American pop culture.

"Singing in Korean" by Colbert

HipKorea - ColbertSegment
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What do make of all this? Please comment. Thank you!

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