When you listen to vocal music in languages you don’t understand–world music for instance – you experience the singers more as music than just following the words. You focus more on the sound of the voices, the phrasing, and most importantly the sound of the language. You don’t get hung up on the words, which you can always find out about later. Rather than missing something crucial, there is the added benefit that you focus more on the voice as an instrument than as a purveyor of words.
I used to feature an older album by a bossa nova singer, Alaide Costa, where she talks about the early bossa nova movement in the early 1960s and its prime movers: Jobim, the Castro-Neves Brothers, Joao Gilberto, and others. Just hearing her voice and the Brazilian Portuguese was enough. Her voice and words were music even though she wasn’t singing.
I interviewed Djavan in the mid 1990s (the story is in my book Rhythm Planet). Back in the 1980s, producers were trying to crossover foreign stars by having them sing in English. Djavan did such an album back then, and it was, well, not his best. And not only was the poetry lost in translation, so was the beauty of the Brazilian way of speaking Portuguese.
I guess I’ve always been more into instrumental music than vocal music, though I am a big fan of many singers (Shirley Horn, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sarah Vaughan, Gal Costa, and many more). People who’ve heard me on the air over the past 30 years know who I like. But I always focus more on the sound of the voice than to the words. I suppose I listen in a more abstract way than just following the meaning of the words, but I feel I get more out of it that way. It is richer for me this way.