Choosing Their Words: Artists Reach for Their Roots by Writing in Other Languages
NOTE: This story is an extension of the exploration in our summer journal of how people and music migrate and mix. For more stories on the theme we're calling (Im)migration, check out the summer journal here.
Lindi Ortega always tries to learn a few phrases in the local language wherever she tours. For the first-generation Canadian country singer-songwriter, who readily notes her Mexican and Irish heritage, the go-to line is just “little red boots,” after her song of the same name on 2011’s eponymous album. In German, she says proudly, it’s “kleine rote stiefel.” In French, it’s “petites bottes rouges.” In Spanish, it’s “pequeñas botas rojas.”
Ortega, who recently moved back to Canada after a five-year stint in Nashville, calls from her home on a break from tour. She’s running on just two hours of sleep, but still sounds thrilled to be chatting about linguistics.
“It always gets a little hoot ‘n’ holler!” she exclaims, referencing her attempt at communicating with concert attendees in other countries from her perch behind the mic on stage. “Even if I’m bumbling it up and it’s not exactly perfect, I always feel like they immediately appreciate the fact that I made the effort to speak to them in their language.”
On her current album, Liberty, Ortega takes a number of risks — with the music, her look, and in fact, the language. Her previous EP, 2017’s 'Til The Goin' Gets Gone, presented such dramatic crossroads for her that she nearly quit music. Between financial struggles, stylistic differences with record labels, and a craving for artistic freedom, she set out to make a record in her own way, in her truest voice. As a result, Liberty is bolder than anything else she’s done in her seven-album career.
Over its 15 tracks, Liberty conveys a sort of concept album that could double as a soundtrack to a 21st-century spaghetti Western. (Read ND's review of the album here.) With influences ranging from Italian composer Ennio Morricone to American Westerns (and the way Mexicans are presented within them), the album encompasses a range of instrumentals and narrative-based songs. In particular, the retro harmonica work in songs like “Lovers in Love” and the twangy, yet reverb-heavy guitar work on single “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me” and the title track chug along like a steam-rolling train across the deep Western plains.
But arguably, the most surprising element of Liberty comes in the final third of the record. On “Pablo,” a song written for her husband, Daniel Huscroft, Ortega sings in Spanish for the first time on one of her records.
“Pablo, amado mío / Eres mi fuego, eres mi corazón / Cantar, cantar mi Pablo / Con tu guitarra, cantar mi corazón / Pablo,” she coos.
(In English: “Pablo my love / You’re my fire, you’re my heart / Sing, sing my Pablo / With your guitar, sing my heart / Pablo.)
Ortega’s father, who played bass in a Latin band when she was a kid, spoke with her in Spanish almost exclusively until she was five. In fact, she recalls that she was mostly fluent in Spanish at that time. But when the language stopped being used regularly around the house, she says, “my Spanish got poorer and poorer as I grew up.”
Since then, however, Ortega says that her dad encouraged her to sing in Spanish. “Growing up in Canada, French is a second language here, so I didn’t really learn [Spanish in school]. I always tried to pick up a Spanish for Dummies and try to get in on it. I always found whenever I visited Mexico, I would pick it up really quickly and I would start to get more of the words and the phrasing. But I always wanted to sing in Spanish and my dad, of course, was always 100% behind that idea. He was just like, ‘You need to have a mariachi band and sing in Spanish!’ and I was like, ‘I know, Dad, I know! I want to do it!’"
Ortega closes Liberty with a sparse version of “Gracias a la Vida” — a song carried by her wispy vocals and slow, ranchero-inspired muted brass. Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra originally composed the work, but folk singer Joan Baez’s version popularized it in America. For Ortega, that song and its message inspired her to explore singing in Spanish and even writing the chorus to “Pablo” in her own words. For her, the freedom to sing in the language of her father and his family represented an enormously meaningful cultural connection.
Finding their Roots
Ortega is not the first musician to explore how language crosses borders and generations, of course. Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de mi Padre, a full record of mariachi, ranchera, and Mexican folk music inspired by her father and released in 1987, was one of the first linguistic crossover successes from an artist singing in something other than their native tongue. Even today, it’s still the highest-selling non-English language album in American music history.
And the trend spans different languages, as well, ranging from many Romance languages to Aramaic languages and more. Nefesh Mountain, for example, the husband-and-wife bluegrass duo of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, offers songs in both English and Hebrew. While both grew up in New York, Lindberg’s paternal line comes from rural Georgia, while Zasloff is completely of Ashkenazi descent from Poland and Russia. Neither grew up speaking conversational Hebrew, but Zasloff learned from spending extended periods of time in Israel.
Like Catholic or Greek Orthodox denominations in which the liturgy is presented in native texts, contemporary practicing Jews learn to pray in Hebrew. And for Nefesh Mountain, the language of their ancestors plays an important role in their cultural and spiritual lives.
As Lindberg explains, “Bluegrass music, and roots music in the Americana sense —and I’m including the Scots-Irish influence and African influence — all of the music that’s come to be made in America in the folky and roots sense, if it has any spirituality, it’s always been Christian.
“But it’s really a cultural thing that the idea of Christianity was a part of America. So us and the band, I don’t think we set out to do exactly this, but now that we’re kind of here, it’s us celebrating what we believe as Americans and as Jews. When we sit down on Shabbat — however religious you are — you don’t just say, ‘Thank you, God, for the bread.’ You say it in Hebrew. And you sing it! And for me, I think of my grandma and it’s who I am as a person and my lineage going back through the generations ... We use Hebrew in many of our songs to connect.”
Zasloff continues, “When I listen to folk and bluegrass and old-time and country, it feels like ... it has a beautiful soulfulness and an energy to it that I really love. It’s like ‘ruach,’ which is ‘spirit’ in Hebrew. There’s just this ruach to bluegrass the same way that you have to get up and start dancing when you hear klezmer for a lot of people. The exact same ruach is in this music! And I love it! It makes me feel like I’m living. It also has the pure truth to it and the quietness and really some of the sadness and aching that the bluegrass music brings out is something we as Jewish people can connect to as well. And I think the other common ground is that there’s such a celebration of nature in this style of music, in bluegrass and old-time. That also feels very familiar from the Jewish tradition.”
The band’s current record, Beneath the Open Sky, came out in March on its own label. (Read ND's review here.) With its guitar and banjo-led instrumentation, the songs can sound quite similar to traditional bluegrass albums. Thematically, however, original tunes, while mostly in English, are often inspired by Jewish ideas. “The Narrow Bridge,” for example, is based on a Jewish prayer of the same meaning called Gesher Tsar Meyot. The prayer is one for courage, acceptance, and resilience, and the band — with the help of all-stars Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and David Grier — transform those timeless messages into modern times.
The notion of roots in roots music resonates with Nefesh Mountain in particular. “Roots music means, to me, the same as folk music ... which is music of the people,” says Lindberg. “It’s not by any sort of musical standard or complexity. [Roots music] could be any number of things in this country, from blues to jazz to all of these genres that we’ve all created along the way. It’s music for people to sing, music that brings people together.”
“It’s not by any sort of musical standard or complexity. [Roots music] could be any number of things in this country, from blues to jazz to all of these genres that we’ve all created along the way. It’s music for people to sing, music that brings people together.”
Adds Zasloff, “I think about my roots and who I am and where I come from and wanting to share that as an artist. It’s what we’re doing — trying to be authentic as to who we are and share our roots with the world! My roots really are as a Jewish American, and putting Hebrew in it really honors my roots in a way. I love roots music without reason. It’s like, that’s what I’m doing — going back to my roots and being true.”
Language as Protest
In these contentious times especially, honoring one’s roots can be an act of political defiance. When the president remarks that people from certain other countries are rapists, criminals, and murderers and decrees that those from certain Middle Eastern locales can’t enter the country, using national security as a veil for blatant racism, the act of singing in another language — especially a non-native one — takes on even more significance.
Over the course of her two-album solo career, cellist, banjoist, singer, songwriter, and song collector Leyla McCalla has recorded and performed in English, Haitian Creole, and French. As a first-generation Haitian-American, the former Carolina Chocolate Drop spent a summer in Haiti with her grandmother as a 10-year-old and returned to the US conversational in Creole. Both her parents were immigrants to the US and Haitian rights activists, and that connection has stayed with her — moving from the Northeast to New Orleans.
“It’s such a big part of my identity, so that’s sort of the basis of it, coming from two different cultures and recognizing that,” McCalla begins. “I also was learning from touring a lot with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We talked a lot about the legacy of slavery in the United States, and that legacy extends to Haiti. I think that Creole as a language, it is a slave language. It is a language that was formed for people to be able to communicate and protect themselves and not be understood. It always impressed me when I’m singing to a French audience, and I tour a lot in France, and people don’t understand what I’m singing! And to me, I can see the parallels in the language so easily, but French people can’t understand Creole. And I realized that they’re not meant to understand Creole. That’s why they don’t understand it. It wasn’t created for them! It was created for slaves and people of African descent to be able to communicate with each other. I think that’s a really fascinating part of the language. And on top of that, I thought there were all these more subtle cultural expressions, proverbs or sayings, that didn’t make sense in English at all. ... The sentiment, the nuance of it is lost when you try to translate it into English.”
McCalla has never been afraid to get political with her music, as shown by her interpretations of Langston Hughes poems on her 2014 solo debut Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes and 2016’s A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, which references Gage Averill’s 1997 book, A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti. Especially on the last record, McCall offers both originals and interpretations of Haitian folk songs that address a range of social issues and injustices.
McCalla is finishing a new collection due out next year titled The Capitalist Blues, which deals with a number of issues surrounding freedom of speech. For that album, she says, she’s been writing in Creole more, rather than reinterpreting traditional Haitian folk songs.
Although the title for The Capitalist Blues references the François Duvalier-led totalitarian era in Haiti (which lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s), the parallels with modern day issues in America are apparent. As she describes, “There’s just so many issues in Haitian history and modern-day Haiti — racism, classism, poverty, hunger, women’s rights, working’s rights — these are the issues that we’re still grappling with everywhere in the world, and actually they’ve become more extreme in many ways.”
By learning about her heritage and singing in the language of her ancestors, McCalla — like Ortega, Lindberg and Zasloff, and others — serves as a creative conduit connecting the past and the present. In some ways, it’s a personal choice, one to help the artist delve deeper into cultural self-exploration and reconnect with personal roots. For many artists, however, it’s also a political choice, showing how much human migration has shaped the pop music canon and how beautiful that melting pot of sounds can be.
And as McCalla says so succinctly, “I think it’s hard for me to see any creative work as not political."