Thursday, January 12, 2006


In the Olympic sport of America-bashing, French, British, Canadians, and citizens of almost every Muslim country regularly pick up Gold medals. All of their criticisms are completely false, of course. Well, except one: it's true that, as linguists, we are pretty much duds. Whereas Europe has legions of people who can make puns in five languages, not one native-born American in a hundred is fluent in any language but English. Shoot, lots of us don't even speak English very well.

One consequence of our traditional monolinguism is that quite a few singers who sell recordings by the millions and have huge followings in Europe aren't a blip on the radar in the United States. In some cases, that may be no great loss; in others, we're missing something. Here are three European popular vocalists you may not have heard and who in my opinion are worth checking out.

Liane Foly 2

This is Liane Foly. She — excuse me, what? Babe? Come on, guys, less of that. We're talking musical appreciation. Anyway, this shot's slightly old-fashioned night-clubby aura authentically captures something about her. She has a "big" voice, of the husky sort the French go for, but somewhat more rounded than (for instance) Patricia Kaas — you do know Patricia Kaas, don't you? — and her interpretations don't hold back on the emotions.

Her vocal quality and range, and theatrical sense, are tops in my book. On the other foot, I do have reservations about the arrangements she apparently prefers: on two of the three Liane Foly albums in my collection, she's nearly upstaged by strings, washes of synthesizer, and vocal choruses. Her disc titled Acoustique has relatively restrained production, letting her stand out more, and that's the one I'd recommend.


Next up, Alkistis (or in some transliterations, Alkisti) Protopsalti. Right off the mark, you know she's European. Who else would pose for a publicity shot these days holding a cigarette? There's still some corner of a foreign field where the Health Police haven't started kicking down doors — please, officer, there's no need to cuff my hand to the chair, that was just a joke, I'm clean, gave up smoking 20 years ago — where was I?

Oh, right, Alkistis. I was introduced to her about 1985 when I worked in radio — I mean, I was introduced to one of her albums; I'd probably have melted into a puddle if I'd been introduced to her — by a Greek radio station owner visiting my station. It was my first intimation that not all Greek music resembles the Zorba soundtrack. What I heard on that album, which I later transferred to audiocassette and still listen to while driving, was a voice of enchanting purity and soulfulness. Greeks may dance on table tops at weddings, but there is quite a bit in their history to be sad about, and the sad beauty of Alkistis Protopsalti's interpretations floored me.

I lost track of her for a long time, until one day, out of curiosity, I Googled her and found that she is still very much active on the concert circuit. On a recent visit to California I picked up one of her newer albums at The GreekShops, primarily a mail-order outfit but with a small walk-in store in Santa Monica. (If you visit the site just linked to, you can click on the little speaker icons and hear sound clips of Alkistis.) On this new disc her arrangements are more contemporary, but very good in their way, and the voice retains its allure of old.

And then there is Sezen Aksu, who I gather is one of the most popular singers in Turkey.

sezen aksu 4

She delivers ballads in what I assume is a traditional style and in a richly colored voice, spiced by exotic (to Westerners like me) instrumental backing. There's more than a touch of melancholy, but also a plainchant-like otherworldliness.

No getting around it, Sezen Aksu has compromised by including some commercial dance tracks on her discs (although I guess if you like that sort of thing, it's not a compromise). But what she does on the down-tempo, introverted numbers is so good that she can be forgiven for some waste of her talent on standard international pop grooves.

By the way, language is no barrier to enjoying these women's ways of song. Although I can more or less follow Liane Foly's French, I am Greekless and Turkishless in a pronounced (or should I say unpronounced?) way. The human voice is its own language.

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