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Viva La Fiesta!

Achieving a #1 hit on the UK charts is a huge deal for any artist, but if you think it’s difficult to do with a song sung in English, just consider the challenge you face if your song is sung in a different language. Many try and many fail. It takes a special kind of beast to achieve this feat and it hasn’t happened often!

Of course, it isn’t that there aren’t good pop songs being written and recorded overseas. After the US, Japan actually enjoys the biggest share of the global music market, while Germany is close behind in third place. And if you consider the number of Spanish-speaking countries there are across the globe, then the force of the Latin pop market is not to be underestimated either.

But the thing is that sometimes, regardless of whether the singer is a huge star in their native country, pop songs from the European continent and Latin America just can’t replicate their success over here. Take superstar Enrique Iglesias’ 2014 single ‘Bailando’ – although hugely popular elsewhere, it only reached #75 in the UK charts and yet its style isn’t much different to its successful 2017 counterpart ‘Despacito’.

Speaking of ‘Despacito’, it appears to have spearheaded somewhat of a Latin boom happening in the UK charts, a trend that has been bubbling under the surface since around 2016. Songs like ‘La Bicicleta’, ‘Mi Gente’ and the English-sung but Latin-inspired ‘Havana’ have captured the hearts and minds of music lovers in the UK.

So, what first comes to mind when you think ‘pop songs sung in a foreign language’? ‘Livin La Vida Loca’, perhaps? What about ‘La Macarena’? And say, didn’t Abba sing something in Spanish?

All close, but no cigar. Truth be told, only a handful of non-English language songs have topped the UK charts in its 70 year existence. Here’s the best of the bunch…

1. La Bamba - Los Lobos [1987]
This classic song must be one of the most recognisable ever, thanks in part to its signature opening guitar riff and vocal exclamation of “Para bailar la Bamba!”, but you might not know much about its origins. A Mexican folk song, ‘La Bamba’ has been performed for years, long before Los Lobos recorded their chart-topping version in 1987. In many ways, it’s the Latin ‘Twist and Shout’, what with the direct translation of the song’s chorus being ‘to dance the Bamba’, the ‘Bamba’ being the name of a Mexican dance and roughly translating to ‘shake’.

2. Despacito - Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee [2017]
If you want to know why there’s been a resurgence of Spanish songs in mainstream music, look no further than ‘Despacito’ for your answer. Meaning ‘slowly’, ‘Despacito’ rocks and sways gently like the tide lapping at the shores of a Puerto Rican beach, luring in the listener with a steady 4/4 beat embellished with salsa guitar lines and smooth Latin pop vocals, while the contribution from ‘King of Reggaeton’ Daddy Yankee brings the track right up to date. Justin Bieber’s remix certainly boosted chart performance in the US, but it was the original that topped the UK charts back in 2017.

3. Rock Me Amadeus - Falco [1986]
This song gets on my nerves a bit, but for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint. It’s an odd track that became associated with the Neue Deutsche Welle (Germany’s equivalent to the UK’s new wave scene) due to its electronic influences and dark sound. When you break it down, this pulsing electronic dance tune is really an ode to Mozart, with Falco’s epic vocals recasting the legendary Austrian composer as an 18th century rock idol – which, in many ways, he was. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was the first ever German-language song to top the Billboard charts in the US and it managed to take #1 in the UK too, helping Falco to become the most successful Austrian singer ever.

4. We No Speak Americano - Yolanda Be Cool [2010]
Another odd track in musical terms, possibly because if English-speaking audiences can’t understand the lyrics then something needs to stick instead. The way Australian duo Yolanda Be Cool achieves this is by sampling Renato Carosone’s 1956 hit ‘Tu Vuò Fà L'Americano’ - sung in Italian - and twinning it with a stomping electro chorus in a way that only modern dance music can facilitate. The song was a huge hit in its own right, but not long after, it soundtracked a hilariously awkward scene in 2011’s The Inbetweeners Movie.

5. Mambo Italiano - Rosemary Clooney [1954]
The aforementioned Italian musician Renato Carosone actually recorded a version of ‘Mambo Italiano’ in 1956, but that was two years after the American singer and actress Rosemary Clooney had already taken the novelty song – a parody of popular mambo styles – to the top of the charts. Though Clooney wasn’t Italian-American herself, her deft vocal skills and experience of performing Italian music was enough to carry the song, despite its stereotypical – if good natured – portrayal of Italian people and the lyrical jumble of Spanish, Italian and English words. Allegedly, due to an imminent deadline, songwriter Bob Merrill scribbled the nonsensical lyrics on a napkin and dictated the melody to a studio pianist from the payphone of an Italian restaurant in New York.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 93, Pages 42-44.


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