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I wanted to take a moment in this very special issue of the libraries’ newsletter to highlight my favorite part of our collections, the foreign language browsing collection. Featuring eight of the 11 languages taught at the Language Schools, the foreign language browsing collection is available year-round in the Davis Family Library on the Vermont campus. During the summer, it includes books, DVDs, music CDs and dictionaries, all intended to supplement the curricular work and assignments offered in the Language Schools’ classrooms. The collection is found on the Main Level, right behind the semicircular information desk. Here are three mini reviews of works that I have recently enjoyed from the foreign language browsing collection in Spanish, French and Portuguese
Mata Siguaraya by Beny Moré, originally recorded from 1949-1951 and digitally remastered in 1992
Long before I moved to monster hits like Luis Fonsi’s and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (2017) and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (1999), I danced to Beny Moré’s Mata Siguaraya. My father, born and raised mostly in Costa Rica, played Beny Moré’s music at full blast as he cooked in the kitchen on weekends at home. The singer’s tenor vocals, therefore, will always be attached to my childhood and memories of my father.
Although Beny Moré was Cuban, he found success recording in Mexico in the 1940s and performing big band orchestral music in the 1950s while on tours throughout Latin America. Moré’s music broadened my mind as I knew of few Black people who were native Spanish speakers and even fewer who had been celebrities. Beyond this, what was popular on the radio when I was a tween included the likes of hip-hop patriarchs: Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg– all of whom hold a special place in my heart and memory as well. But Black men singing– crooning— ballads in Spanish was mostly unheard of when it came to popular music for the generational tastes of my region. Moreover, the only big band I’d ever encountered was on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz. The combination of a singer and an orchestra was by and large an outdated motif in the 1990s but the quality of the music endured and is, in fact, timeless.
I must credit the album, too, with some of my first serious forays into the Spanish language. Wanting to understand what phrases meant and when and where they began ushered me towards the study of the Spanish language. It took time, but now I know what Moré is singing when he praises a woman’s beauty on track three, “Ah Barbara”:
Tú eres toda, toda una obra (You’re a work of art…)
Completita estás, de verdad (Perfect, really…)
Ni te falta, no, ni te sobra (You haven’t too much or too little…)
¡Eres una barbaridad! (You’re a magnificent masterpiece!)
For a greater understanding of the album’s namesake, Mata Siguaraya, visit this site that shares more information on the flora of Cuba and the siguaraya’s relationship with enslaved Africans and the Santería religion. For more male singers from the Hispanophone world, you can also look for recent/contemporary works by Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias or Juanés.
Joséphine (2008) by Pénélope Bagieu
Joséphine is a collection of French-language cartoons/comic strips. The punchline of all the jokes is invariably and reliably sourced from the main character’s insecurities surrounding her perceived failures as a woman: she is single; her clothing isn’t draping her body the way she feels it should; her legs are unshaven, etc., et al. I enjoyed this work in general but, to my chagrin, I’m afraid it is because I identified so closely with the lead character, which, despite my resistance and feminism, suggests I hold some stock in the the idea that a woman earns value when she is coupled, when her body is easily dressed in standard, widely available sizes of clothing and all of the hair on her body is found north of her nose.
I must admit that Joséphine’s struggles are intimately familiar. When I was humored, it was with a bittersweet twinge as I, too, run the race of being an independent, self-reliant, productive woman in 21st century society and still hear the invisible, patriarchal voices listing my “shortcomings” on a daily basis. So if you asked me if I’d recommend this work, it’s hard to respond in the affirmative. It’s cute. It’s nicely colored with accessible drawings. It’s a short read. In terms of language learning, yes I recommend it. In terms of progressive thought on representations of women and women’s psyches, I’d choose another work. Also, if I may, the actual use of the French language is largely understandable for a broad range of novice learners. However, the handwritten text appearing in cursive makes some of the lettering illegible. With no standardized font employed that would indicate whether I was seeing an “r” or an “n,” a few messages got past me. For more thematic works like this one, see Aude Picault’s Idéal Standard in French, Maitena Burudarena’s Mujeres Alteradas in Spanish or Hugo para principiantes in Portuguese.
O som ao redor/ Neighboring Sounds (2012) directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
As a person raised in the United States, I do not find the themes raised in Neighboring Sounds or the overall “thesis” of the work immediately accessible. However, with the proper contextualization and the help of some critical reviews, I find the film to be masterful– quite impressive indeed. However, I initially found the work opaque. Seeing this film “cold,” without necessary knowledge about Brazil’s cultural history and social stratification, is akin to making a joke about Aunt Jemima, the Pillsbury Doughboy or, say, the Kool-Aid Man with someone born and raised outside of the United States; the joke doesn’t just “go over one’s head”; there’s simply no cultural reference point for a foreigner to understand the characters’ socio-historic roles in advertising and marketing very specific, regional products.
So, for a bit of a backdrop, know that the movie addresses the enduring legacies of a society in which slavery and servanthood have made Brazilian social classes rigid and unforgiving and social mobility virtually impossible. While the sugar mills of yore that once sustained wealthy families have long since become defunct, the children and grandchildren of those who labored on the lands of the rich struggle to find their footing in a contemporary society that ascribes little value to domestic workers and their handiwork skills. Now contentedly off of the plantations, those with old money in the film attempt to keep a low profile in the city and live comfortably from their inheritances, but the memory of old wrongs rear their ugly heads. Neighboring Sounds, then, becomes a tale of karma, poetic justice and revenge.
I have to say that the film lends a slow and subtle reward to patient viewers. At over two hours in length, the viewer can get a bit fidgety, but ultimately the work is truly one of art. Divided into three sections, the story visits a seaside neighborhood in Recife. All is generally calm save for the theft of a CD player from a car. Following this, a private security force offers its services to the neighborhood’s residents for a cheap subscription fee. The offer of their services is met with both indifference and reluctance but is ultimately accepted. This inattention, however, proves costly.
I like the work because it speaks so “loudly” about Brazilian society with such a quiet voice. Films like, say, The Green Mile (1999), Crash (2004) and even The Shape of Water (2017) say quite a bit about culture in the United States but they spoon feed their audiences, drawing detailed maps with keys and legends that painstakingly label villains, heroes and social hierarchies. I still liked them all quite a bit, yet they do not trust the viewer to pick up on subtlety or overtones. Neighboring Sounds makes the audience work more intellectually to grasp the plot, subplots and objectives of the work, lending some worthwhile mental exercise for those willing to engage. If you can, I’d say watch this film with someone from Brazil and dissect a few scenes as ultimately the conversation will reveal more about our neighbor to the south than not having the discussion at all. For more works like this, see Como nascem os anjos (1996), which engages narratives from the favelas, or the animated film Uma história de amor e fúria (2013). Like Neighboring Sounds, both explore how socio-historic strictures can strangle even the present.
If you do not own a DVD drive, borrow one at the Circulation Desk in the Davis Family Library. For those of you who cannot make it in, know that we have viable streaming options for video content through Kanopy and for audio through Alexander Street Music. If you see me at the Research Desk, feel free to ask about additional resources.