Welcome to November, everybody! It’s the time of year for Día de Muertos, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Veterans Day … many traditions converge on late autumn and early winter as a time for remembering those we have lost. It’s usually a cold, gray, windy, pensive time of year (at least in the northern hemisphere), threaded with melancholy as we bid goodbye to the fun, colorful part of autumn and face the coming cold, dark days of winter. Many churches traditionally set out a Book of Remembrance during the month of November and invite people to write the names of deceased loved ones to be remembered in prayer by the congregation.
I thought it was fitting, then, to focus on “Remember Me/Recuérdame”, the main theme song from Coco (2017) for the early November post on EngageWithSpanish.com. “Remember Me/Recuérdame” was composed by husband-and-wife team Robert Lopez (music) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (lyrics), who also collaborated on the 2013 Disney juggernaut Frozen. One of their challenges in composing this song was to come up with a versatile piece that would work in a variety of contexts as well as musical styles. In my Coco post from a few weeks ago, I mentioned the heartstring-tugging lullaby version of the song that Miguel sings to his great-grandmother near the end of the film. Of course, the “Remember Me/Recuérdame” theme appears throughout the film, frequently referenced as Ernesto de la Cruz’ greatest hit, popular to the point of parody in the Día de Muertos Battle of the Bands.
However, for this post I am going to focus on the bilingual duet between Grammy-winning artists Natalia Lafourcade and Miguel that plays over the closing credits of the English-language version of Coco. This version of the song won the Oscar for Best Original Song in February 2018. In the music video, we see the two singers climbing into an attic decorated to evoke Miguel (Rivera, the character)’s hideaway, decorated for Día de Muertos with brightly-colored papel picado, candles, flowers, skulls, and framed photos of deceased loved ones arrayed on an ofrenda. Miguel (Jontel Pimentel, the artist) sings the English lyrics while Natalia Lafourcade sings in Spanish. We see them lighting candles and dancing, intercut with animated scenes from the film, in a cumbia-infused arrangement that manages to be simultaneously laid-back and percussive.
This duet was one of the featured musical performances at the 2018 Oscars, when “Remember Me” won the award for Best Original Song. Miguel and Natalia performed their version following an acoustic introduction by Gael García Bernal, who provided the voice of Héctor in the film. The performance was an important moment for diversity and representation at the Oscars, which have been heavily criticized in recent years with #OscarsSoWhite and calls for a restructuring of Academy membership.
Although Miguel (the artist) only sings one word of Spanish in this version of the song, he is a bilingual English-Spanish speaker of Afro-Mexican heritage, a self-described “Blaxican” who has expanded his range by beginning to record in Spanish as well as English. Earlier this year he recorded an interview (in English) with Maria Hinojosa of Latino USA in which he discusses his upbringing, his bilingualism and his combined Black and Mexican identity (see also: This video about the Afro-Mexican community in Los Angeles, CA).
The Spanish portion of the lyrics are sung by Natalia Lafourcade, a Mexican pop-rock-folk singer with a rich Latin American artistic heritage (she is the daughter of Mexican pianist María del Carmen Silva Contreras and Chilean musician Gastón Lafourcade, and the Chilean writer Enrique Lafourcade is her uncle). Over her career she has moved between genres, from contemporary pop and rock music fused with bossa nova and other Latin rhythms to more classical and folk styles. In 2012 she released an album, Mujer divina, in tribute to the Mexican troubador Agustín Lara, and her two-volume Musas (2017 and 2018) compilation is an homage to Latin American folk music. She performs several numbers from this album in her NPR Tiny Desk Concert from Oct. 27, 2017, accompanied by a band that includes the legendary Juan Carlos Allende and Miguel Peña.
Under the right circumstances, song lyrics can be a powerful vector for language learning. I can still recall, after more than two decades now, the words to a Christmas carol in Spanish that Señora Callahan had us learn in my high school Spanish I class: “En el portal de Belén, hay estrellas, sol y luna. La Virgen y San José y el niño que está en la cuna. Pastores venid, pastores llegad, adorad, adorad al niño que ha nacido ya …” For years, in random moments (usually nowhere near Christmas time), that little nugget would bubble up in my consciousness and I would catch myself humming “Pastores venid …” for no apparent reason. I had no idea who the artist was and I didn’t remember the rest of the lyrics, but that chunk of it was – and still is – very clearly inscribed in my memory. Google tells me that the responsible party is someone named Sasha Sokol; I clicked on the video to make sure, and yes, there it was in all its boppy ‘80s synthesizer-infused glory.
At the time that I learned it, I didn’t know all of the vocabulary. I certainly didn’t know that the verbs in the refrain contained examples of the affirmative vosotros imperative form. But “El portal de Belén” was enough of an earworm that it stayed with me, and gradually as I grew more proficient I was able to parse the lyrics and understand them more fully. When learners memorize song lyrics, they may initially be what linguists call “chunks”, unanalyzed fragments of language that learners may only vaguely understand. But the emotional and aesthetic impact of the music, along with the boost to memorization that melody affords and the likelihood of repeated exposure, all combine so that over time, song lyrics can be a fruitful source of comprehensible input for language learning.
For learners listening to “Remember Me/Recuérdame” on their own:
A bilingual song is an opportunity to make interesting comparisons between the two languages. Sometimes the verses attempt to convey the same or nearly the same thing in both languages. (For example, as the Spanish-speaking population in the US has grown, church hymnals have begun to include hymns with lyrics in both Spanish and English. Usually the translators of these lyrics attempt, with varying degrees of success, to keep the content as similar as possible.)
Other songs might use the two languages more in the way “Remember Me/Recuérdame” does, to write verses that complement but don’t necessarily mirror one another. In this instance, the lyricist was able to take advantage of the fact that “remember me” and “recuérdame” have the same number of syllables and similar vowel sounds and prosodic contours, making it easy to use those phrases the same way in the structure of the verses. The remaining lyrics are thematically similar across both languages, but they aren’t direct translations of one another. Additionally, it is interesting to note that even though the Spanish lyrics belong to the female vocalist, they are written from the perspective of a male narrator singing to a female listener (“”en tu mente vivo estoy” and “si sola crees estar”), reflecting Héctor’s role in the film as the song’s true composer, writing for his daughter Coco.
Beyond analyzing the lyrics, learners can use “Remember Me/Recuérdame” as a springboard for exploring the Spanish-language catalogs of two fascinating artists. In particular, Miguel embodies one of the many Afro-Hispanic identities that all too often go unrepresented in the media. He reminds me of Rhiannon Giddens, the multiracial vocalist, fiddler, banjo player, former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, reminding the world that musical traditions belong to people of more colors than one might assume based on mainstream representation. NPR’s Kaia Kater recently said of Giddens something that applies equally well to Miguel:
… Black and Native people face near-total erasure from music they had a giant hand in creating … This lack of acknowledgment, coupled with steadfast economic and political subjugation, has reared its head culturally in the mocking of Black and Native customs and personhood, often historically in song (minstrel shows) and symbol (big noses, lips, sports team mascots), leaving deep wounds with little reconciliation or reparations on the horizon.
Thus, seeing one’s glorious brown face reflected in the world is necessary for the psyche for more reasons than one might think. Los Angeles-based arts researcher Wendy Hsu explained to the Washington Post that the idea of representation is about much more than simply seeing yourself in a work of art – it helps you feel connected to, or to see yourself as part of, a community. “It’s often important for people to have this feeling of belonging, and it comes with things like social comfort, familiarity, the language that you speak, things that are really usually pretty intuitive like your family and social connections,” Hsu told the Post. And for people who feel estrangement from their cultural roots – musically and otherwise — Hsu says the need is even greater and more urgent.
Miguel’s participation in this duet is a reminder that Spanish is a world language spoken by people of all colors, whether as a native, heritage or later-acquired language.
In Natalia’s portion of the duet, learners may encounter a few challenges in the elision between words. In last week’s post, I talked a little bit about prosody and how sounds sometimes flow together in ways that can be hard for non-native ears to catch. Sometimes this is even more the case with song lyrics: composers take advantage of elision to make their text fit the meter of the music, and sometimes unstressed syllables fall on stressed beats and vice-versa. Several of Natalia’s lines include series of elided words that may be challenging to recognize on first listen.
For language educators:
One of the most evident ways that “Remember Me/Recuérdame” can be used in the classroom is to highlight informal commands, both affirmative (“recuérdame”) and negative (“no te vayas a olvidar”). This version includes on-screen lyrics superimposed on animated images from the film:
Another potential classroom use is to point out the flexibility of syntax in Spanish. Learners may already be aware that even in English, poetry and song lyrics often take liberties with syntax. However, because of the comparatively greater syntactical flexibility of Spanish, the lyrics of “Recuérdame” include structures that might be unexpected to learners with L1 English, but they would not be as out of place in ordinary discourse as “poetic syntax” in English would be.
Another possible topic of focus for more advanced levels is to use the Spanish stanzas to talk about poetic meter, elision and how to count syllables. The phrases “contigo ahí estaré” and “te irá a abrazar” will appear to have too many syllables to fit the meter unless learners use the appropriate elision between vowels. The English verses and the music provide a clear frame of reference that learners can use to know how many syllables each line can contain, and they can practice identifying elisions and counting syllables before moving on to more challenging, unfamiliar poems.
Remember me, though I have to say goodbye
Remember me, don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart
Remember me, though I have to travel far
Remember me each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again, remember me
(Que nuestra canción no deje de latir,
Sólo con tu amor yo puedo existir)
Recuérdame, si en tu mente vivo estoy
Recuérdame, mis sueños yo te doy
Te llevo en mi corazón y te acompañaré
Unidos en nuestra canción, contigo ahí estaré
Recuérdame, si sola crees estar
Recuérdame y mi cantar te irá a abrazar
Aún en la distancia no te vayas a olvidar
Que yo contigo siempre voy, Recuérdame
(If you close your eyes and let the music play
Keep our love alive, I’ll never fade away)
Remember me, for I will soon be gone
Remember me and let the love we have live on
And know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
So until you’re in my arms again
Remember me, if you can still recall
Remember me when darkness starts to fall
For even though I’m far away you take me everywhere
And sing a secret tune and soon I’m with you then and there …
Have you engaged with “Remember Me/Recuérdame“? Share your ideas, experiences and suggestions in the comments!