Review: Books from The Secret Mountain

The Canadian company The Secret Mountain has published a lot of CD/book sets the past few years.  Once every three or four months, it seems, the company releases a hardcover book accompanied by a full CD of music.  At this point, they are nearly the equal of the Putumayo Kids label in terms of their ongoing release of music from around the world (at least from an American's perspective), even if the depth of their catalogue isn't yet near that of Putumayo.

Let's take a look at some recent releases to see if any might be right for your family.

Let's start with the least-recent production, The Fabulous Song.  The book (written by Don Gillmor and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay) was actually first published in 1996.  It concerns one Frederic Pipkin, a young boy who does not take to instruments of any kind but eventually finds his own way to bring music into the world.  It is my favorite of the books here, but the music by Michelle Campagne and Davy Gallant is my least favorite of the CDs here.  The songs have a bit of pop-musical sound to them, but unlike most musicals, the songs only comment on the action without really ever moving the action along itself, and while I happen to like my share of musicals, there are no distinguishing songs here.  (More details here.)

Next up is Chicken Joe Forgets Something Important, a sequel from Trout Fishing in America to their previous Secret Mountain book, My Name Is Chicken Joe.  Frankly, I didn't give this book and CD enough attention when it first came out last fall, because when I gave it another spin recently, I was surprised (and pleased) at how well-done the songs are.  As a CD, I liked it more than what was in part a greatest hits album on the first book.  The songs have some connection to the story, but each stands alone without the other.  The story itself (the title pretty much says it all) is slight, but Stephane Jorisch returns to give the story his "happy Ralph Steadman" illustrations.  As a set (and definitely for the CD alone), I would definitely give this book the edge over Fabulous Song and I would recommend the CD by itself as well. (Details)

Moving on to more Putumayo-ish turf, Secret Mountain last fall released Songs from the Baobab.  The book itself was a massive success overseas when it was first released a decade ago, selling more than 100,000 copies.  Now the set featuring African lullabies and nursery rhymes compiled by Chantal Grosleziat comes to North America.  The book itself features evocative illustrations by Elodie Nouhen and a line or two of translated text from each song on a page or two.  (More detailed liner notes follow these fully illustrated pages.)  I am certainly no expert in the renditions, but they sounded lovely to my ears.  I would say the songs tend more toward the lullaby end of the spectrum.  (Details)

For those of you looking for a sprightlier musical trip somewhere outside of America, the latest set from the label, Songs in the Shade of the Flamboyant Tree, should fit the bill.  This collection of French Creole lullabies and nursery rhymes is more on the nursery rhyme end of the spectrum.  The songs were compiled again by Chantal Grosleziat, but illustrator Laurent Corvaisier uses a brighter, more vibrant palette (befitting the music).  I recommend both this and its African cousin -- your preference for calmer versus more active songs (and pictures) should guide your choice.  (Details)

There you go -- four sets, at least three worth further exploration.