US Ambassador Sings in Guarani

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According to this BBC Report, the US Ambassador to Paraguay, James Cason, has released an album of songs in Guarani, the indigenous language. The BBC story has a clip if you'd like to hear him. He says that he began to study Guarani in Cuba before taking up his post in Paraguay. When he got off the plane he immediately gave a speech in Guarani, to the surprise not only of the Paraguayans but of the US mission, who were unaware that he had been studying the language. The US does not have a good reputation for diplomats who speak the local language, so this is really unusual. Part of the story here is no doubt the fact that Ambassador Cason is a career foreign service officer with long experience in Latin America, not a political hack. In any case, kudos to Ambassador Cason.

Although most Paraguayans are reported to be pleased with Ambassador Cason's album, Senator Domingo Laino, once a distinguished opponent of the Stroessner dictatorship, is not. In his opinion: "[Cason] sings horribly and his pronunciation of Guarani words is stammering. It is an offense to the Paraguayan people." I'm in no position to judge, but my suggestion to Senator Laino is: don't look a gift horse in the mouth. An ambassador who sings in Guarani is like a talking dog: it isn't how well he does it, it's that he does it at all.


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    I know that idiom as "the dancing bear". A talking dog would make you a fortune.

  2. Gary said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    I suspect you are remembering Samuel Johnson as channeled by his Boswell: Sir; a woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. One does not ask if it is done well—one wonders that it is done at all.

    (the last sentence is not literal but it gives the sense of the quoter)

  3. Bill Poser said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

    You're both right, I think. But I can't decide if the talking dog thing is a related expression or something that just crossed my mind.

  4. Rubrick said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

    I'm just trying to figure out if the ambassador is a dog or a horse.

  5. Boris Blagojević said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    It's very nice to hear that the ambassador is trying so hard, and I support such an effort one hundred percent, but I also have to say that singing in a foreign language with a lousy pronunciation can be somewhat… annoying. I wouldn't call it "an offense to the Paraguayan people", though – that's way to extreme even if his pronunciation of Guarani is as stammering as Laino says.

    Most of us are blessed with a perfect pronunciation of at least one language, so why not use that when recording professionally? Why does Georgian woman insist on singing /pi(:)s vil kam/, when her pronunciation of Georgian (however unpronounceable that language may look to others…) is no doubt just fine?
    And besides, it seems to me that people tend to pronounce languages better when they sing (especially vowels), so when I hear someone doing it lousily, well, I get the impression he ought to do a lot better job. I could be wrong, though, it's a non-native judgment only: most non-native singing I hear is in English, hardly anyone seems interested enough in Croatian.
    But I'm digressing again.

  6. Therese said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    After having heard a lot of bad second-language singing in English, Japanese, and Mandarin, I think that listening to his probably-bad second-language singing in Guarani isn't all that bad. The clip was more fun than a Shakira song, in any event.

  7. Bill Poser said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    I think the point is that even if Cason's Guarani is awful, he isn't trying to be insulting, and he isn't imposing his singing on anybody. Nobody is forced to listen to his CD. If he insisted on communicating in Guarani song in all his dealings with Paraguayans and he is as bad as Senator Laino says, that would annoying, but as it is he's just making a nice gesture.

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    Rubrick: He's the horse of the dog that bit you.

  9. Bill Poser said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

    "I'm just trying to figure out if the ambassador is a dog or a horse."

    There's a Jewish joke that is sort of about this.

  10. Boris Blagojević said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    @Bill Poser: Well yes, I agree that in his case it was just a nice gesture. Though in his place too I would have stuck by speeches. But I really am a terrible singer, so perhaps I'm not being objective here.
    Anyway, I was commenting a more general trend. As I said, I tend to digress, sorry.

  11. Joshua said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

    I have to say, I would consider it a success for the U.S. State Department just to have an ambassador to Paraguay who speaks Spanish and is aware that most of the country's population speaks Guarani.

  12. lemur said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

    @Boris: But had he stuck to speeches, we would never be hearing about it. I doubt the album was ever intended to launch his musical career, but rather as PR – "Hey look, sometimes US ambassadors do actually care enough to learn the host country's language, and not even the primary language but even an indigenous one." And as PR, the fact that we're talking about it here is proof that it's succeeded to some degree, whereas very likely sticking to speeches would never have made it into the news outside of Paraguay.

  13. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 4:17 am

    If you consider whether he's a fox or a hedgehog, I'd say he's a terrific hedgehog.

  14. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 4:19 am

    (And Senator Domingo Laino is obviously a fox).

  15. mrpsbrk said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 6:51 am

    I'm amazed, there is even an Guarani wikipedia! But i am wondering how does it feel for a Paraguayan to listen to this foreigner trying to speak this language. What are the dynamics of a country with two official languages? Is Guarani seen as "less educated"? Aren't there some complex status games at work in the difference of languages? Wouldn't the ambassador be threading dangerous lines there? Can't he be seen as trying too hard or being overly courteous?

  16. ajay said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    You're thinking of Sam: Johnson –

    Dr Johnson: … A servant who is an influence for the good is like a dog who speaks: very rare.

    Edmund: I think I can change his mind.

    Dr. Johnson: Hmpf! Well, I doubt it, sir. A man who can change a prince's mind is like a dog who speaks Norwegian: even rarer!

  17. Paul Clarke said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    In related news a Louisiana school board member objected to the use of Guarani and said that in future all ambassadors' albums should be recorded in English.

  18. Bunny Mellon said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    Dr Johnson said, …a dog who speaks Norwegian: even rarer!

    Well, my dog certainly understands Norwegian, which is more than Johnson did, and my wife claims she (the dog) speaks it. She (the dog) is very bright (the wife, too, come to that), an Irish Wheaten terrier (the dog).

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

    Boris Blagojević said,
    Most of us are blessed with a perfect pronunciation of at least one language, so why not use that when recording professionally?

    I don't know if pronunciation is nearly as much an issue as singing ability. After all, Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevelier did pretty well singing in English, although their pronunciation was considerably short of perfect.

  20. Dr. Psycho said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 4:14 am

    Please note the important point that this man is a career diplomat, not a campaign-donation baby, which suggests that at the very least he is the whole horse, including the front part.

  21. Daniel Morris said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    Boris said: Most of us are blessed with a perfect pronunciation of at least one language, so why not use that when recording professionally?

    Because he didn't want to?
    Related question: Why didn't Nabokov choose to write Lolita in his first language rather than his third?

  22. Eric Bakovic said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

    Scott Simon interviewed Cason about this for Weekend Edition, which aired this morning. It's a nice interview, and Cason comes off (honestly) as an ideal ambassador.

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