As the saying goes, "Music is a universal language." Pink Martini, a musical orchestra of sorts that's been blending genres such as jazz, classical and even a bit of opera since 1994, takes this old adage to heart. This weekend, Pink Martini joins the Houston Symphony, led by principal POPS conductor designate Steven Reineke. Along with NPR's Ari Shapiro as a guest vocalist, Pink Martini plans to offer a multilingual feast, including music from their latest album, Je Dis Oui! (“I say yes”), that brims with multiple languages.
“As we started touring, traveling to France and all around the world, we saw how it was so wonderful to connect with our fans when we sang in their language,” says vocalist China Forbes. “There was also a lot of loving pressure to learn a song from fans, so we ended up adding many more languages as we went along.”
Back in 1994, Forbes was living in New York City, appearing in regional theatre, off-off Broadway productions, and NYC clubs when her Harvard classmate Thomas Lauderdale asked her to join Pink Martini, a group he had recently founded. The first song they wrote together, “Sympathique,” was a whirlwind hit. And for the past 23 years, Pink Martini continues to stand out in their embrace of languages, ideas and cultures.
“Whenever I count (how many languages we perform), I forget what the total is,” Forbes says, “but it’s a lot.”
Even though she sings in stacks of dialects and tongues, Forbes humbly claims to have real command of only a few. Outside of that, she learns what she can and gets coaching on pronunciation. “Duo-lingo says I’m 50 percent fluent in Italian—but it’s not true,” she laughs.
A long-time fan of Puccini and Verdi and with early hopes of being an opera singer, Forbes studied Italian and lived in Rome for a summer, but says French is probably her strongest language.
“My grandfather was French, I grew up speaking French in the house with my dad,” she says. “But unless I live in France for a year, I don’t think I’ll ever be French.”
Fans all over the world have fallen for the musical group as they sing in words the audience understands. But with big hits in languages many of us haven’t even heard before, there’s something a little ancient about music itself that Pink Martini taps into. When you can’t follow the words, it comes down to just a feeling in the sound itself.
“In concerts I make a joke—we do a song in Turkish, and I say this song is about my love dying in spring time, but if you don’t speak Turkish you’ll never know,” Forbes says. “It’s really nice when lyrics cause you to reflect, but also melodies, the tone of my voice, the spirit of performance, and when you finally find out what it means it’s jut a another level of intrigue.”
March 17–19. From $35. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713-224-7575. houstonsymphony.org