There’s a song that’s been playing on the radio a lot lately that’s pretty catchy, but I have no idea what the heck they’re singing about. The tune is called “No Speak Americano” by Australian duo Yolanda Be Cool and it’s got a musical track that’s really great fun (Check it out here). The words are adapted from an old Italian song called “Tu vuo fa l’americano”, so obviously the lyrics are in Italian. Listening to the song got me to thinking of other non-English songs that have made it big here in the US and I was able to come up with several well-known foreign language tunes. Take a look:
Those Italian American Classics
Back in the days of the Rat Pack, Italian American songs were all over the place. Though many of these songs were sung primarily in English, there were enough Italian words to qualify them for this list. Many people will surely remember such hits as ” That’s Amore ” by Dean Martin, ” Volare ” by Domenico Modugno, ” Mambo Italiano ” by Rosemary Clooney, ” Eh Cumpari ” by Julius LaRosa, and so many more! (Click on the links to take a listen!)
These songs have been popular in the years since they were first released back in the late 50’s/early to mid 60’s, especially with the popularity of mobster movies such as “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” as well as the hit TV show “The Sopranos.” There are countless CD compilations of these Italian American hits and they’re still as popular as ever.
La Bamba – Ritchie Valens
Who can forget this Spanish language ditty from 1958? The song was actually an adapted version of a traditional Mexican folk song by a singer who didn’t even speak Spanish. The song is ranked #345 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and its title was also the name of the very popular biographical movie of Valens’ tragic life. You can check out the song here .
Danke Shoen – Wayne Newton
When I think of this song, I hearken back to the hilarious parade scene in “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off,” when Matthew Broderick lip syncs it from atop a float. At first I thought the song was sung by a female, but later found out it was a very young (21 years old!) Wayne Newton. Though most of the song’s lyrics are in English, we all learned how to say “thank you” in German. Watch Newton performing the song right here .
Oye Como Va – Tito Puente / Santana
Both versions of this Spanish language tune are well known, with Santana’s 1970 rendering hitting it big at #13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart. The title of the song literally means “listen to how it goes”, but its more colloquial meaning is more like “what’s up?” The song’s been covered so many times it’s difficult to determine just how many versions there really are out there. Check out Puente’s version of the song here and Santana’s here .
Sukiyaki – Kyu Sakamoto
This is the one song on the list that I don’t know, but virtually every search I performed for foreign language hits in the US contained it. To date, it is the only Japanese language song ever to reach the top of the Billboard charts back in 1963. It was covered by renowned disco group A Taste of Honey back in 1981. You can check Sakamoto performing the song right here .
Feliz Navidad – Jose Feliciano
Thanks to this perennial Christmas favorite, virtually every English-speaking American knows how to say “Merry Christmas” in Spanish. Watch a performance of the song here .
99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons – Nena
Back in 1983, German singer Nena recorded a song that became an international hit. Hoping to capitalize on the success of the song in the English-speaking world, the tune was loosely translated into English and rerecorded by the singer a year later. The new version sparked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart and though it was the English version that hit it big, there was enough interest in the song to get the German version some airplay, as well. The title of the song literally means “99 Air Balloons”, but was changed to “99 Red Balloons” for the English translation. Check out the German version here and the English one here.
Macarena – Los del Mar
This is probably one of the most recognizable foreign language songs on this list. The song was performed by long-time Spanish language act Los del Mar, who had been singing together sing the 60’s. When it was released in 1995, it instantly became a worldwide smash, sparking a dance that would become a massively popular trend all unto itself. The song sold over 4 million copies and spent a record 14 weeks in the number one spot. VH1 named it the “#1 Greatest One Hit Wonder of All Time.” Take another look and listen to “Macarena” here.
Asereje/The Ketchup Song – Las Ketchup
This was a silly song that loosely bases its chorus on the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight.” It was more of a success internationally than here in the US, but it did garner enough airplay to get noticed. Check out the video for “The Ketchup Song” here.
Dragonsta din Tei – O-Zone
Sometimes referred to as the “Numa Numa” song, this 2004 international smash by Moldovan boy band O-Zone has an irresistibly catchy hook, even though there’s not a word of English in the entire song (The words are written and performed in Romanian.). The song has been remade and reworked many times over, including a parody by the Sesame Street characters (check it out here) and as a sample in the hit song “Live Your Life”, featuring T.I. and Rihanna (check this one out right here). The title, “Dragonsta din Tei” has proven to be difficult to translate, but who really cares anyway? It’s a fun song! Take a look at O-Zone performing the song here.
It’s not often that foreign languages make their way into the American music scene, so when they do it’s got to be quite special. All of the songs on this list have made a rare impact on American pop culture and are all worthy of an occasional listen. Feel free to add any other foreign language songs that you may know and I might have missed in the comment section below. In the meantime, enjoy!