Review: Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island - Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island album cover

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island album cover

Dan Zanes' ¡Nueva York!We are in at least the third wave of Spanish-language kids music.  The first wave was a narrow but very deep wave, for the most part consisting of Jose-Luis Orozco and Suni Paz, who each have been making music and releasing records for roughly forty years.  (They're still doing so.)

The two of them (separately) made their folk music, often with little more than their voices and guitars, but in the late 2000s, the second wave swept through.  This second wave was considerably broader, but also far more shallow.  This was because most of the music was designed with the idea of teaching Spanish to English speakers in mind.  This led to literally dozens of Spanish-language albums featuring simplistic lyrics and, often, music to match.  There were exceptions, of course -- Dan Zanes' ¡Nueva York! from 2008, his attempt to translate his age-desegregated music to a non-English idiom and capture in music the vibrancy of the Latin culture in New York City was the most notable -- but mostly they proved the rule.  I don't know how successful these albums were in teaching Spanish, but the fact that such albums aren't released much these days suggests that there isn't much of a market for them, educationally or musically.

So here we are in the third wave, I think.  What are the features of the third wave?  I think they're threefold:

1) An expansion of the sound from guitar-based folk music to encompass not only traditional music from a wider range of Spanish-speaking countries, but also shinier pop and rock sounds.

2) The diminution of interest in the song as explicit Spanish-language teaching tool.  There are still songs and albums for which that's a more important point, but they tend to be much better songs, which makes any educational point go down much more smoothly.

3) The choice to write songs in Spanish just because it happens to be the best language for telling the story of the song.  Much as a musician might choose a particular genre, they can choose a language as well.  Here in the United States, of course, English is usually the default option... but it's not the only option.

It's in this third wave that we find Sonia De Los Santos, who brings us Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island, her first solo album for families.  Over the course of twelve tracks, De Los Santos sings about her journey ("viaje") from her home in Monterrey, Mexico to New York City.  For the most part, the journey isn't literal, but rather a journey in song.  Unsurprisingly, since De Los Santos first came to attention to the kids' music world when she joined Dan Zanes' band back around the time of ¡Nueva York!, Zanes plays an important role -- his Festival Five Records is releasing the album, and he and his band appear on several track.  ("Tan Feliz," a De Los Santos original, has a very Zanes-ian folk-rock sound.)

But this is not another Dan Zanes album, which allows De Los Santos to put her own mark on the style of family music Zanes popularized.  Setting aside the language difference (98% of the lyrics here are not in English), De Los Santos travels the Spanish-speaking hemisphere to dip into a broad series of styles.

As I live in the Southwest United States, and have for the better part of thirty years, perhaps I gravitated to the sounds most familiar to me, those of Mexico, the sons with sizable bands of stringed instruments (jarana and requinto, for example, which are versions of guitar).  So "La Golondrina" ("The Swallow," another De Los Santos original) and album closer "Monterrey" appealed to me.

But it's definitely a broader tour than that as she records songs from Venezuela ("Luna y Lucero," or "The Moon and Star"), Chile ("Indeicto Dormido," featuring a distinctive pan flute sound), and Cuba ("Burubndanga," with Caridad De La Luz aka La Bruja helping out on vocals).    She sings a lullaby, "Txoria Txori," in a language I've never even heard of before, let alone heard, Euskera, which is from the Basque region in Spain.  She even translates a couple English-language songs into Spanish, most notable Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."  Here, it becomes "Esta Es Tu Tierra," building from a single voice to a large chorus, and in its translation and structure, it's an artistic choice that is both subtler and bolder politically than anything else you're likely to hear on a kids' record this year.

The cumulative effect is indeed that of a journey, but I wish De Los Santos had been even more of a guide.  De Los Santos' voice and the musical arrangements convey a fair amount of the songs' emotional and lyrical content, and she provides some brief comments in the liner notes, but there are no lyrical translations attached.  (The website has some, but not all, translations as of the time of this writing.)  I think, therefore, that some of the impact of the album will be muted for, say, the 5-year-old kid who doesn't happen to speak Spanish.

This will be an increasingly interesting choice for artists in the future -- do they make albums featuring non-English songs explicitly for an audience of primarily English speakers, or do they craft the albums for the target non-English-speaking audience and hope the English speakers come along for the ride?  I think that artists are going to come down on both sides of that question, and continue to wrestle with what they're trying to do.

The 41-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can listen to "La Golondrina" here.  As with most Festival Five albums, the physical album packaging is lovely -- it's definitely an album worth considering getting a physical version of.

Mi Viaje is an engaging album, and De Los Santos has succeeded in her goal of having listeners understand her journey from Mexico to New York City.  A Spanish-language kids music album might seem like a niche record, but as De Los Santos and others in this third wave of Spanish-language kids music of the past couple years have shown, it can speak to a fairly broad audience.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Review: Rise Again Songbook - Peter Blood and Annie Patterson (editors)

Cover of Rise Up Singing Again

Cover of Rise Up Singing Again

Can singing together change the world?

On its surface, the answer is "no," but the act of singing together produces a lot of other changes that might nudge the world into a better place, particularly in how we deal with people we meet.

No doubt Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, the editors behind the Rise Again Songbook, strongly agree.  Musicians and songleaders, the two of them in 1988 edited and published through Sing Out! magazine Rise Up Singing, a collection of 1,200 songs.  (The fact that no less than Pete Seeger wrote the introduction was a leading indicator of the book's acceptance in the folksinging world.)

Now the pair are back with Rise Again: A Group Singing Songbook, a sequel featuring another nearly 1,200 songs for singing alone or (presumably preferably in the eyes of editors) with others.  The late Pete Seeger contributed a preface this time around and Billy Bragg the foreword.  Assuming three minutes per song, that's another 60 hours or so of singing.  (Better bring your throat lozenges.)

We purchased the original Rise Again (the 15th Anniversary Edition) more than a decade ago, and while I can't say that it's led to nightly rounds with the family, neighbors, or strangers passing by on the street, we do dip into it occasionally.  So while I don't know if I'm the followup's primary audience, I'm certainly more predisposed than the average American to find value in Rise Again.

The basic structure of both books is to include lyrics and chord changes, along with some basic songwriting credit and recording history, but not to include melodic notes.  (You can see part of a sample page here.)  This is an eminently reasonable decision -- only a small percentage of the population can actually read music, and if you're trying to choose songs to sing, you're probably going to gravitate to familiar melodies for which you don't need the music.  It does mean that folks like me (who can read music) who love exploring unfamiliar songs need to turn to Spotify, YouTube, the CDs by Patterson and Blood featuring basic melodies, or the public library to learn the songs, but that means turning away from the pleasures of diving into the book.  (But again, I'm probably in the minority here.)

In both books, the songs are organized by theme.  Some themes are fairly obvious and well-defined -- "Faith," "Seas & Sailors," "Travelin'" -- while others are a bit more nebulous (and also reflect the desire for social justice that in part was the animating impulse behind these books), such as "Earthcare," "Peace," and "Struggle."  (There are also sections specifically for kids under age 8 and lullabies.)  While it's possible that a reader could find a song of interest thumbing through individual sections, or guess in which section a particular song might nestle, they're far more likely to use the Titles index in the back.

Because readers are likely to turn to these books to sing familiar tunes, the differences Rise Again has compared to its predecessor are not insignificant.  I haven't done a statistical analysis -- it would take some time to tally up the results from 2,400 songs -- but it feels like I know considerably more songs in Rise Up Singing than in the new book.  There are more public domain songs, more songs that have been around for generations, centuries even.  The comparative lack of familiar songs isn't a problem in and of itself, but for me there are just fewer familiar songs.

On the flip side, however, Rise Again features way more contemporary artists than the original book did, and not just because the original book came out in 1988.  Here's a partial list of artists just from the first page of the Artist Index in Rise Again who aren't in the equivalent index in the 1988 book: Adele, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, The Avett Brothers, The Band, Billy Bragg, Garth Brooks, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Johnny Cash, Tracy Chapman, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Cliff, Bruce Cockburn, and Coldplay.  I'm not going to recognize every song by those artists, either, but that's indicative of a book that's trying to reach a broad audience that might not necessarily have copies of Peter, Paul & Mary albums in their iPhones.

(As an aside, there are also some familiar kids music names -- besides daisy mayhem, familiar names like Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Bill Harley, Peter Alsop, Jay Mankita, John McCutcheon, The Nields, and Barry Louis Polisar appear in the book.)

A couple technical comments, one positive, one a suggestion for improvement.  First, the positive: these are spiral-bound books, which aids greatly in its use -- it lays flat anywhere, and you can even fold it around so you only see one page.  The suggestion for improvement?  Add a ukulele chord chart to go along with the guitar chord chart on the last page.  The ukulele is an incredible sing-along instrument, and deserves to be a part of this book as much as the guitar.

So would I recommend Rise Again?  From a sheer familiarity standpoint, I'd probably recommend Rise Up Singing before this new book as I think that even with another quarter-century's worth of songs included in Rise Again, for most folks I think they'll find the original has more songs they'll be able to sing.  But there are certainly enough songs that have seeped into the national consciousness in this new book that it'd keep your family occupied for months if not years to come.  And hopefully it's not too much to ask that this be an ongoing project, that this become a trilogy another quarter century from now.  I'd definitely recommend Rise Again as I do think in its small way it could change the world, one singalong at a time.

Note: I was given a copy for possible review.

Two Unnecessary (Albeit Necessary) Kids' Albums

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

In one sense, I place albums of nursery rhymes in approximately the same category as entire albums of Beatles covers -- pretty much unnecessary.  The Fab Four's originals are so iconic (and often perfect) that redoing them seems pointless unless the artist is doing something entirely novel with the songs.  A single Beatles song mixed among originals or covers of other artists? Sure.  But an entire album?  Even if it's really good, they're more likely to send the families to dig out what Beatles music they have.

With nursery rhymes and classic kids' songs, I have the same basic issue, but with a different spin.  With albums covering classic songs like "London Bridge," "The Wheels on the Bus," and "Row Row Row Your Boat," and so on, artists have two possible approaches: 1) simple renditions that put the melody and lyrics up front, and 2) entire reworkings of the songs whose elaborate arrangements, rather than the song itself, become the point ("Pop Goes The Weasel"... gone metal!).

The latter approach isn't without merit -- such arrangements can sometimes help listeners of all ages hear an overly familiar song with new ears, or introduce those listeners to a genre they might not typically spin.  As you might expect, the former approach -- simple songs done (relatively) simply -- is my preferred approach, but the problem here is that, well, exactly how many such albums does a family need?

Besides the fact that the only member of our family in single-digits age-wise is our youngest Boston Terrier, we are also card-carrying members of Team Wiggleworms and Team Raffi.  Songs for Wiggleworms and Singable Songs for the Very Young (and their immediate successors) met our need for collections of nursery rhymes and familiar kids' songs a decade ago and, well, there's no need for anything new.  That's overstating things maybe a bit, but not a lot.  Songs for Wiggleworms features dozens of classic songs, usually with nothing more than a guitar for accompaniment.  Singable Songs for the Very Young is more expansive -- some original songs amidst the classics, with more elaborate arrangements -- but at its heart, it's still an album of classic kids' songs.

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

So from one perspective -- my own family's, reviewer's hat aside -- the latest releases from Laurie Berkner and Lisa Loeb, are utterly unnecessary.  We have the unadorned collection of songs, we have the slightly adorned collection of songs, and we've been listening to them for so long that they feel like much-loved stuffed animals.  Why anyone would throw those stuffed animals away for lovely new stuffed animals is beyond me.

But there are lots of families who haven't yet found that stuffed animal, and perhaps some of those families will find in Laurie Berkner's Favorite Classic Kids' Songs and Loeb's Nursery Rhyme Parade a stuffed animal that they can rely on.

Because make no mistake, these types of albums should be in the collection of every family with a preschooler in the house.  These are the foundational songs of childhood, with melodies (and often lyrics) that have lasted for literally centuries.  These are the songs that parents and caregivers should be singing to (and hopefully with) the young ones in their midst, and good collections of classic songs help families do that, by reminding the adults of songs (both lyrics and melodies) and offering the kids repetition to solidify their knowledge of the song.

Of the two albums Berkner's is more reminiscent of Raffi's fuller arrangements and approaches.  Her band appears on many tracks, and she shares vocals with a number of musicians.  Sometimes she sings a cappella, and some tracks end up on the other end of the production spectrum ("Shoo-Fly" features strings), but all the arrangements put the song first.  And Berkner still has one of the best female voices in kindie.

On her album, Loeb goes the more minimalist Wiggleworms route.  More a cappella, and when she is accompanied, it's usually just with a simple guitar.  If the listener wants the song, just the song with as little embroidery as possible, then Nursery Rhyme Parade is the album more likely to meet that listener's expectations.  To be clear, Loeb has a fine voice herself, and it's produced well, but it's hard to envision a much simpler album.

The albums are different enough -- beyond the arrangements, surprisingly enough there are a number of songs that are featured on only one album or the other -- that you could conceivably get both.  But assuming you only want one, there are other differences that might influence your choice.  For example, Berkner's album is actually a 57-track collection that stretches to 2 hours and 9 minutes in length.  About half of those are remastered previously-released tracks (including 6 Berkner songs included as "bonus" tracks), but even then you'd get 27 new songs.  Loeb's collection zips by, 37 tracks in 31 minutes, and, perhaps more importantly, it's featured on Amazon Prime Music, which means that you're not going to be able to hear it on streaming services like Rhapsody and Spotify (both of which are streaming Berkner's new disk).  It's part of what appears to be a new effort by Amazon to target family audiences, and while you can buy Loeb's album from Amazon, either in mp3 or physical format, I think much of the audience will be Amazon Prime customers streaming it.  (There are very few albums of classic kids' songs in the Amazon Prime collection that won't induce parental frustration -- Loeb's is one of the few that passes muster.)

So, do you need these albums?  If you're a Laurie Berkner fan or a Lisa Loeb fan and you have kids still in preschool, then I think their albums will be an excellent fit for your family, even if maybe you already have a preschool song collection.  If you have preschoolers, but don't have a preschool song collection, then both these albums are worth exploring.  There are other albums that serve the same audience, but the arguments I might make for favoring one over another would be mostly my own particular biases.  You don't need these albums at all, but you do need albums like these -- perhaps even these albums -- very much so.  With those caveats, these are both definitely recommended.

Note: I received copies of both albums for possible review. 

Video: "Manta Ray" - The Whizpops

I can't say that I'm on a first-name basis with Hank Green, the scientist who just seems to have way more time in the day than I do because he runs VidCon, NerdCon, and a whole bunch of other entrepreneurial efforts, even though I did recently attend NerdCon: Stories.

Still, the name "Hank Green" means more to me than it did, say, 18 months ago, and so when I heard that Montana kindie band The Whizpops were featured on a recent SciShow Kids episode of Green's, I figured, it'd be worth checking out.

And so it is!   It's for the song "Manta Ray," and it features some sweet animation and, well, manta rays. Win all around! Go science!

The Whizpops - "Manta Ray" [YouTube]

Interview: Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos

For most of us, Sonia De Los Santos is probably best known as a musician who's played with Dan Zanes throughout the country and the world since the release of Nuevo York, standing stage right and singing harmony and lead vocals on songs both in Spanish and English.

But last week, with the release of Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island, De Los Santos is taking the next steps in a journey of at least a decade, when she moved to New York City from Monterrey, Mexico to pursue her own musical memories.

De Los Santos certainly gets some help from Zanes and her bandmates on a few tracks, but for the most part she performs the songs with a new set of folks, some of New York's finest Latin musicians.  It's mostly in Spanish, but she's making music for listeners of all languages.

In this interview, De Los Santos remembers the incentives she had to sing all-ages folk music growing up, how she joined Zanes' band, and the album's meaning to her.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Sonia De Los Santos: In my family, it was singing with my mother at home.  Nobody was a professional musician, but there was singing everywhere -- at home, cooking, in the car.  My uncle, my mom's older brother was very musical.  I was the youngest, and my older brothers were closer in age, so I spent time playing by myself.  I'd spend parties with my parents -- my uncle would sing, my mom would sing.  [Thinking back on it] A reason I like family music... I listened to kids music [growing up], but if I sang a kids music at a party, they might not be as happy as if I learned a bolero, or an old song of my grandparents.

Did you take lessons growing up?

Only voice lessons.  Never music, just singing -- I did that in high school and college.  I took one guitar class, but couldn't do it because of my class schedule.  But [subsequently] I've been surrounded by generous musicians [who have taught me].

Why did you move to the United States?

I wanted to do musical theater.  Wanted to study it more, but couldn't do it at that time.  So I went to New York City in 2005.  I did a summer workshop in musical theatre there -- I came back home, and decided to pursue a musical career.  I had no family there, no job, no nothing.

So how did you get involved making music with Dan Zanes?

That happened about 1 1/2 years after that.  I was doing theatre auditions about when Dan was recording his album Nuevo York.  He wanted someone here in New York who could sing and whose primary language was Spanish.  I was in this database of Spanish actors and singers, so Dan's manager got my name as a recommendation and asked me to audition.

The audition was at his home, and I was wondering, "Who is this guy?"  And I looked him up, and... Grammy, TV, played everywhere.  So at the audition I sang "Pay Me My Money Down," "Malti," "Rock Island Line."  After that, he called back, and I came over and met the band.  Then I played a benefit event with them, at the house of a big movie star in Brooklyn.  [And then] I got a contract for 1 1/2 years of touring.  All of this within two weeks.  You hear that album, and I'm in every single track; I was helping Dan with his Spanish.

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje album cover

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje album cover

What drove you to make this album?

The need to to tell my story.  After 8 years, I had lots of stories, and more perspective.  I had the great story of my journey, but also while touring, I've seen the need for this family-oriented music in Spanish, from different cultures -- Mexico, Mexican-Americans, Spain, the Caribbean.  Parents would ask me, "We love Nuevo York, when are you going to do your own album?"

The reason I didn't do it before was that I wasn't ready.  I learned from all of my friends in other countries.  I'm proud of [the album].

"Mi Viaje" means "my trip" or "my journey" -- was that something you thought of before or after recording the album?

I think both.  The general concept was that of the journey, but I didn't know how it would fit together.  Some songs I picked in advance.  But then I did "This Land Is Your Land" in Spanish, and [it has] that phrase, "from the redwood forests... to the New York island."  Then I changed it to "from Nuevo León" -- which is my home state in Mexico -- "to the New York island."  That opened me to the journey.

What takeaways do you hope listeners have from the album?

So many things.  First, I hope they like it and listen to it with an open mind.  [Listeners] know me from singing with Dan, but this is coming from me.

I'm nervous -- I hope they like it.  It's very personal about me, but everybody has their [own] journey, like a parent seeing their own kids taking steps or going to college.

I hope it inspires.  It breaks my heart the conversations we're having [as a country] right now.  Maybe listeners will see, there's another Mexican woman making music for kids.

Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos

What's next for you?

I want to start touring.  I've got a couple shows coming up, and I've got a show in January at Symphony Space [in New York] with Dan as a special guest.  I'm eager to be going out under my own name.  I'd like to make a couple videos, too.

I can't think of another big project -- I'm exhausted, but my level of satisfaction is very high.

Kids' Music Videos for Halloween 2015

I've already posted an updated list of kids music songs for Halloween, but I wanted to give a special shout-out to three new videos -- maybe they can serve as the intro to It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! showing at your neighborhood Halloween gathering.  Halloween is almost here, so let's get going!

First off, a nifty stop-motion animation piece for an instrumental song, "Skeleton Dance" by Monty Harper.  Totally appropriate for all ages.  (You can grab Harper's collection of Halloween tunes here.)

Monty Harper - "Skeleton Dance" [YouTube]

Next up, Mariana Iranzi offers up "Es Halloween," a Spanish-language song about, well, I don't think you need to know any Spanish to guess its subject.  The driving pop-rock song features a nice groove, while the animated video features five pumpkins rolling along.

Mariana Iranzi - "Es Halloween" [YouTube]

I've posted this before, but it's too good not to include...

The Hipwaders - "The Boy Who Cried El Chupacabra" [YouTube]

And, finally, it's John Joyce and Poochamungas singing "Bah Humbug Halloween," the story of Scrooge meeting the ghosts of Halloween Past, Halloween Present, and... Elvis?  OK, not quite, but... mostly.  The video tells the story in mostly live-action narrative.  I really don't remember Dickens writing this story, but I'm good anyway.

Poochamungas - "Bah Humbug Halloween" [YouTube]