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10 Strange Times Singers Sang in Languages They Didn’t Speak

by Kieran Torbuck
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Generally speaking, popular music is the antithesis of abstract. To be popular at all, it must have a large receptive audience, and the most receptive audience will often be one that knows what the song is about. This might explain why most singers stick to their native language. Doing so guarantees that their pronunciation and accent will be clear. If they are also a lyricist, then it is easier for them to choose words that express what they want to say.

Sometimes, however, singers have pushed beyond the limitations of their mother tongue, and several have even gone beyond any language they can actually speak. They have not only done so for artistic reasons or to reach new audiences. Entertaining astronauts on board a Soyuz capsule and lyrics being stolen from a satirical dictionary are also reasons that some singers have done this. Read on for the full stories of those and eight other times that singers sang in unfamiliar languages.

Related: Ten Unbelievably Strange or Ill-Advised Covers of Songs

10 Paul McCartney in “Michelle”

Michelle (Remastered 2009)

Although it would not appear on an album until 1965’s Rubber Soul, “Michelle” is actually one of the Beatles’ oldest songs. The song features Paul McCartney singing in English with a smattering of French sentences, which are reportedly just about all he knows of the language. The reason he chose to sing in a Romance language that he did not speak goes back to his teenage years.

While their band was still called the Quarrymen, John Lennon would invite his younger bandmates to parties put on by his hip art-school crowd. McCartney wanted to fit in at these parties and attract some female attention. He thought that performing in French would help, owing to the popularity of French singer Sacha Distel at the time.

However, he did not speak the language and would just fake it instead. He would don a black turtleneck and strum a French-sounding tune on his guitar while singing faux French. Years later, once the Beatles had hit the big time, Lennon would recall the tune and ask McCartney to make a proper song out of it. He teamed up with a French-teaching friend to write “Michelle.”[1]

9 Dave Mustaine in “A Tout le Monde”

Megadeth – A Tout Le Monde (Official Music Video)

The Beatles might be one of the most influential bands of all time, but it is hard to imagine how a charming acoustic ballad like “Michelle” could ever influence a thrash metal band like Megadeth. Yet, according to the latter’s lead singer, Dave Mustaine, part of the reason he chose to sing the chorus of the song “A Tout Le Monde” in French was because of his fondness for the Beatles’ number. He also cited his French last name and the fact that he was dating a French-speaking girl from Canada at the time as reasons for including the language.

He actually started learning French during the course of his relationship so he could speak some of the language. However, the song is still worthy of an entry on this list because, before settling on French, he tried singing it in several other languages, too. He said in an interview that the chorus to the 1995 classic also worked in Spanish, but the attempts to sing it in German and Japanese were “pretty horrific” and failed “abysmally.”[2]

8 John Lennon in “Across the Universe”

Across The Universe (2021 Mix)

Paul McCartney was not the only Beatle to sing in a different language, and George Harrison was not the only one that Indian spirituality influenced. This is made clear by the inclusion of a Sanskrit mantra in John Lennon’s lyrics for the song “Across the Universe,” which he considered to be among his finest. The song is full of highly original and poetic similes, but the phrase “Jai guru deva, om” is something Lennon says was given to him and that he did not own.

He said the phrase “came through” him the night that he penned the lyrics, which, despite their calming tone, were actually written in the aftermath of an argument with his first wife. It can either mean “Victory to God Divine” or “I give thanks to Guru Dev.”

Guru Dev was the teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with whom the Beatles studied meditation. Despite Lennon’s inclusion of his mantra, the Maharishi was said to have disliked what followed it in the song. The chorus goes, “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” but the Maharishi’s position was that meditation could change everything.[3]

7 Joe Strummer and Joe Ely in “Should I Stay or Should I Go”

The Clash – Should I Stay or Should I Go (Official Video)

From their formation in 1976 until the early 1980s, the sound of British punk rockers The Clash was not very commercial, which was sort of the point. But when the 1980s came around, the band set their sights on commercial success. Some early Clash fans were dismayed, while others saw that it was in keeping with the punk attitude to break out of the punk genre’s limitations.

“Should I Stay or Should I Go” was a song written specifically with the aim of becoming a classic. It succeeded and became one of the band’s most famous songs. Guitarist Mick Jones did most of the writing, but something that he did not originally write for it was the Spanish backing vocals, sung by Joe Strummer and the American singer Joe Ely.

Strummer said it was a “spur of the moment” idea while in the studio, and the lyrics were translated over the phone by the mother of the studio’s tape operator. Strummer remembers her as Ecuadorian, while Ely said in a later interview that the studio engineer was Puerto Rican. Either way, the result was what Ely called “the weirdest Spanish ever.”[4]

6 Bananrama in “Aie a Mwana”

Bananarama – Aie A Mwana [Extended Version]

It was actually a song sung entirely in a different language that started one of the world’s most successful girl groups off on the road to stardom. Surprisingly, that language was not French or Spanish or any language with which Western audiences were likely to be very familiar. No, Banarama’s first release, “Aie a Mwana,” was sung in Swahili. The strange choice of language is because the song is a cover.

The trio had heard a version of it by the African group Black Blood in a French disco. This is where the Swahili lyrics came from, although this also was not the original version of the song. Not knowing Swahili, a language widely spoken on the east coast of Africa in countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, the girls learned the lyrics phonetically before recording the song as their first demo.

It only reached number 92 in the UK chart. Still, it got them noticed by influential figures like radio DJ John Peel and Terry Hall of The Specials fame, leading to Bananarama’s meteoric rise to musical stardom in the 1980s.[5]

5 Andy Ellison in “Whangdepootenawah”


The title “Whangdepootenawah” sounds like it has been borrowed from another language, and it is often believed to have been. However, the origins of the word are not entirely clear. The song was written and performed by members of a ’70s glam pop supergroup called Jet. The band included drummer Chris Townson and bassist Martin Gordon, who had briefly been in the band Sparks, along with guitarist Davy O’List of The Nice and Roxy Music and former John’s Children vocalist Andy Ellison.

Townson and Ellison brought the lyrics of “Whangdepootenawah” to Gordon, who thought the words were “witty” and duly set them to music. The track, sung by Ellison, appeared on the band’s first and only album. Gordon would only find out years later that his bandmates had lifted the words almost wholesale from the satirical Devil’s Dictionary written by Ambrose Bierce.

According to Bierce, the word comes from the language of the Native American Ojibwa people, and it means a disaster or “unexpected affliction that strikes hard.” However, it has also been suggested that the word might have been made up.[6]

4 Conway Twitty’s Russian version of “Hello Darlin’”

Conway Twitty – Hello Darlin’ in Russian

Conway Twitty was a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Japan before he became one of country music’s biggest stars, but in 1975, he found himself serving his country once again. This was a time of high tension between the U.S. and the USSR. Not only was the Cold War and its threat of nuclear catastrophe ongoing, but both sides were also involved in the Vietnam War.

Fearing that World War III might be on the horizon, efforts at détente began in the hope of easing the hostility between the two powers. To this end, the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Project was announced as a joint U.S.-Soviet space mission. Astronauts from both countries were launched separately and docked together in space, spending 44 hours together.

During that time, they would do experiments, eat, and listen to music. That was where Conway Twitty came in. As a gesture of goodwill from the Americans to the Russians, he had re-recorded his 1970 hit “Hello Darlin’” entirely in Russian, learning to pronounce the words phonetically.[7]

3 David Bowie in “Warszawa”

Warszawa (2017 Remaster)

It might not have been heard by astronauts in space, but the man who fell to Earth has also had a go at singing in another language. Following his two brief visits to Warsaw in 1973 and 1976, David Bowie wrote the song “Warszawa.” It features a choral part sung by Bowie and inspired by a song called “Helokanie.”

“Helokanie” appeared on an album by a Polish ensemble that Bowie had purchased in the city. Looking for a vocal part that could “express the feelings of people who yearn to be free” to add to an instrumental track composed by Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti, he remembered the record.

Poland at that time was under communist rule, so drawing on Polish music seemed appropriate. The words he sings are not English, and given the song’s title, inspiration, and theme, it is easy to assume he must be singing in Polish. But this is wrong. What he actually sings are simply made-up words with phonetics that he believed could express the emotions he wanted, even if the words did not mean anything.[8]

2 David Byrne in “I Zimbra”

Talking Heads – I Zimbra live – Letterman 1983 (Higher Quality)

The producer and composer Brian Eno was also involved in the production of this next song, which shares with “Warszawa” the use of nonsense words. “I Zimbra” is the opening number of the Talking Heads’ album Fear of Music. It came about from lead singer and songwriter David Byrne’s attempts to create a similar sound to some African music he had been listening to.

Byrne started with the music and composed several different ideas, but once he had woven them together, he found that the song would no longer fit the common chorus-and-verse structure of most pop music. This made writing lyrics difficult, so Brian Eno suggested that Byrne use a “poem without words” by the avant-garde author Hugo Ball instead.

The poem they chose was called “Gadji Beri Bimba” and was composed only of nonsense words. It was written in 1916, and Eno learned about it while at art school. Byrne took his advice, taking the words “i zimbra” from the last line as the song’s title.[9]

1 Enya in “The River Sings”

Enya – (2005) Amarantine – 05 The River Sings

Irish songstress Enya is certainly no stranger to singing in unusual languages. She has sung in Latin, Welsh, Japanese, and even Elvish, the latter of which she sang for Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. She has described herself as “comfortable” singing in other languages, and given her experience, she should have had plenty to choose from when it came to writing her 2005 album Amarantine.

After writing the lyrics for the album, she decided that she wanted some of the songs, such as “The River Sings,” to be in another language. However, she struggled to find the right one. She tried Gaelic but felt like the Celtic language did not work well for the melody of the song.

Luckily, help was at hand in the form of her long-time lyricist and creative partner Roma Ryan, who was working on a new language that she called “Loxian.” Ryan translated the lyrics into her language, which then expanded with each song. This gave Enya a language she would continue singing in on future albums.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen