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What do Otis Redding and Roberto Carlos have in common?

Soul’s latest incarnation comes in the guise of St. Paul and the Broken Bones. St. Paul is not really a saint. He is Paul Janeway of a new band that is hot on the rise. When you listen to him sing it evokes memories of a time past. But the most impressive part is that he does not look the part. People wonder how someone who looks nothing like Otis Redding can sound just like him. So how is it that this Drew Carey look-a-like ended up sounding so soulful? The answer comes from his early childhood.

Janeway grew up hearing gospel music and went to church on Sundays. His parents made a conscious decision to not allow him to hear anything but gospel and soul music. Church also contained quite a bit of gospel. He sung to a number of records and was immersed in this genre of music. He continued in his life and was actually almost ready to graduate from college when the opportunity to sing appeared once again. His band began to receive praise for their singing and the rest is history.

Like Paul Janeway, I also grew up with a childhood music that I would come to rediscover many years later. During my childhood summer trips to Mexico, I would often listen to music. One of the most famous pop singers in Mexico was Roberto Carlos, a native from the northeastern part of Brazil. He had some success in Brazil but nothing like the huge following he had in Latin America, where his accent sounded exotic in Spanish sung songs.

Boy giving thumbs up headphones

On one of our record hunting excursions in the Mission District in San Francisco my dad found a record that looked just like the one I had at home, except that the cover was white not pink — Portuguese version of the record I already had. My curiosity piqued, I began to listen to these songs and soon enough I was singing them with a very thick Spanish accent. I probably sung to the record for about a year or two before I grew older and took on other musical interests.

That very thick Spanish accent remained for me when I took Portuguese as a college student and it did not go away during my first few months in Brazil. However, over time the thick accent disappeared entirely and I came to speak with the accent of a Paulista, as those from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic capital are called.

Many years later I decided to sing a Brazilian lullaby from that Roberto Carlos album to my son Nikolas. And the day I sung it my accent in Portuguese stood in strong contrast to the Paulista that I had grown accustomed to as an adult. I realized that I sounded like a northeastern Brazilian, the same accent that Roberto Carlos had sung with in my childhood. All those years later, the early memory of that song had persisted and it surprised me when it came out. Like Paul Janeway, my exposure to an early set of sounds had created a vocal imprint that reappeared many years later.

People often ask if earlier is better. Well, there is one case where this is almost always true and it has to do with our accent in a language. So if you want to sound like Otis Redding or Roberto Carlos it is better to start working on it earlier in life.

Arturo Hernandez is currently Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston. He is the author of The Bilingual Brain. His major research interest is in the neural underpinnings of bilingual language processing and second language acquisition in children and adults. He has used a variety of neuroimaging methods as well as behavioral techniques to investigate these phenomena which have been published in a number of peer reviewed journal articles. His research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. You can follow him on Twitter @DrAEHernandez.

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Image credit: Young boy removing headphones giving thumbs up sign. © stu99 via iStockphoto.

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