Radicalism and intolerance are the products of ignorance. Much of the conditioning undergone by terrorists is based on imposing a simplistic view of the world in which anything that strays from our own, narrowed-down culture is regarded as alien and hostile. It creates an ‘us’ against ‘them’ mindset, and feeds on confrontation. Radicalism needs ignorance in order to function and deliberately promotes it.
This is why the best way to fight radicalism is to turn ignorance into knowledge by giving the ‘other’ a name, a face and a voice. Singing in a foreign language enables us to do just that. The first thing that strikes you when you hear an unfamiliar language is usually the way it sounds: vowels you cannot figure out, consonants you never thought could be pronounced together, unusual tones, or just a series of pleasant sounds that still do not make any sense to you. Learning a song in a new language gets you to engage with the sounds of the language in question. Even if you don’t always get it right, that language will no longer be entirely alien to you. When you hear the language again you will be much more likely to recognise it and to remember how easy or difficult you found it to pronounce those sounds yourself.
Most people want to know what they are singing, so you are likely to look for a translation of the songs that you sing in unfamiliar languages. Behind every song there is a story, and many songs also take new meanings over the years, or when they are sung in different circumstances, or listened to by different people. Even assuming that you were unable to get any information other than the melody and how to pronounce the lyrics, the song would still have its own meaning for you once you have learnt it. For example, it might remind you of the choir you sang it with, the mood you were in at the time, or the acoustics of the hall where you performed it. Whenever you hear the first couple of bars you will remember the rest of the tune. No matter how little you know about it, that song will never be entirely alien to you anymore, because through the act of singing it you somehow made it your own.
Music plays a central role in people’s cultures and sense of identity, and when you combine it with language in the form of a song, its emotional power is very strong indeed. It is claimed (CNN, 2008) that Nelson Mandela once said: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." Add the right tune to the mix and you shall win him over. The advantage of singing is that, while it takes several years to become fluent in a language, it takes a few moments to learn a simple song. Freddie Mercury only had to sing a couple of lines from Tavaszi Szel (a Hungarian folk song) at his 1986 concert in Budapest to bring the house down. He did seem a bit nervous and had written the words on his hand to aid his memory, but it definitely worked!
Because songs have such powerful meanings, when you sing a song from an unfamiliar culture or historical period you may be conveying certain implicit meanings of which you are not aware. Take a well known tune like We shall overcome: It started its life as a gospel hymn sometime in the thirties and later became the unofficial anthem of Civil Rights Movement, as activist singers such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez performed it at rallies and Luther King cited the first verse in his final sermon in 1968. But at the same time the song was being adopted by Catholics in Northern Ireland. In the late eighties it was sung in Czecoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution, an anti-communist movement. Pink Floyd used it as a protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza. In India, children in the eighties used to sing it at school assembly, this time as a patriotic anthem, whereas in South Africa it became an anti-apartheid song. Even football clubs have given their own meaning to the song, and Middlesborough fans have made it their anthem. There are probably many other groups around the world who use the same tune for very different purposes. Songs, like other cultural creations, are not limited to the meaning that their creator originally intended. Discovering unsuspected meanings is one of the things that makes learning songs from other cultures such an enriching experience.
As I mourn for the victims of the Paris attacks, I propose that we add our own new meaning to this anthem. By singing it in as many different languages as possible, we make an audible stand for peace, and we show that learning is the best remedy against intolerance. Let us embrace diversity and proclaim our respect for otherness from the very soul of humanity: through music and language. By singing in other languages, we are stating that the ‘other’ has actually got a name, a face, and yes, a voice. And for the short moment it takes to sing a verse, the voice of that other becomes our own. Different is good. Vive la différence!