Nat King Cole spoke no Spanish when he recorded his 1958 album, Cole Español, the first of several Spanish-language recordings. The album hit high on the Billboard albums chart, but would have even more impact in Latin America, where Cole’s endearing American-accented versions of popular boleros and cha-cha-chas were enthusiastically embraced, kitsch factor and all, and have remained popular over the decades, beloved and archetypal proof that crossover works both ways.
Many other artists have since been keen to practice their Spanish in song. Sometimes their goal has been to unite pueblos: Pete Seeger sang his version of “Guantanamera” as a peace offering in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis; in the eighties, Sting performed his “Ellas Danzan Solas” during a historic Amnesty International concert in Buenos Aires as salve for the open wounds in a country where thousands were killed under a military regime, going as far as to bring mothers of the victims on stage to call attention to their demand for accountability from the government.
Performing songs en español has also, more simply, expressed artists’ affinity for things Latino: Madonna, a pronounced Cubaphile as well as the incarnation of Eva Peron in the 1996 movie musical Evita, has embraced tropical vibes in songs like “Isla Bonita,” featured bullfighters in her videos, and sung in Spanish (“Verás”). David Byrne teamed with friends Café Tacvba on “Desconocido Soy.” More recently, Coldplay showed their admiration for Argentine band Soda Stereo by performing their song “De Música Ligera” in concert. At the 2017 Global Citizen Festival in Germany, Chris Martín, saying he was “here to represent the non-Spanish speakers” turned out a pretty great performance of “Chantaje,” taking the Maluma part in duet with Shakira.
Saavy artists (and their labels) have long recognized the Spanish-language market for what it is: huge. To reach that audience Johnny Cash recorded a Spanish “Version of Ring of Fire,” Toni Braxton performed “Regresa a Mí” (Otherwise known as “Unbreak My Heart”). Michael Jackson’s “Todo Mi Amor Eres Tú,” the Spanish version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” was adapted by none other than Ruben Blades.
These days, English-speaking artists are eager to increase their Spanish-language cred together with popular Latin artists. Beyoncé, who had already released a handful of bilingual and Spanish songs, turned it out with J Balvin on a charity remix of “Mi Gente.” And of course, demonstrating the transcendent power of Latin music today, Justin Bieber sang in Spanish on the global record-breaker “Despacito.” (But being caught on camera forgetting the lyrics and replacing them with “Dorito” and “burrito” earned him less than stellar marks in both Spanish and class.)
Spanning decades and genres, here are 16 songs in Spanish by non-Spanish-language natives. Which ones do you think make the grade?
Michael Jackson, “Mi Amor Eres Tú”
Toni Braxton, “Regresa a Mí”
Bon Jovi, “Cama de Rosas”
Coldplay, “De Música Ligera”
Chris Martin and Shakira, “Chantaje”
Johnny Cash, “Fuego D’Amor”
Elvis Presley, “Margarita”
Pete Seeger, “Guantanamera”
David Byrne, “Desconocido Soy”
Sting w/ Peter Gabriel, “Ellas Danzan Solas”
Natalie Cole, Acércate Más”
Nat King Cole, “Quizás,Quizás,Quizás”
Harry Nilson, “Si No Estás Tú”
Dean Martin, “Besame mucho”
Beyoncé, “Si Yo Fuera un Chico”