Kids’ music goes global

Dan Zanes caused a stir a few months ago by noting the overwhelming whiteness of a particular national parenting magazine. (I won’t mention which magazine because the criticism is pretty fairly addressed to almost any of them.) His point, which is a sound one, is that a “healthy, inclusive, celebratory society is, I think, where the music flourishes.” Well said, Mr. Zanes.

Think for a moment about your local record store’s kids’ section (pretend you have one and it has more to offer than four copies of The Hamster Dance). I bet it’s filled with tremendously diverse styles of music – played mostly by white musicians.

So, this month, I’ll highlight a handful of the many, many great modern artists of color.

Putumayo Records: Any discussion of world music for kids has to start with Putumayo’s catalog. The label offers a tremendous range of music for grownups, and its “Playground” series brings the world, and the rest of the United States, to your kids’ CD player. Instead of foreign-language translations of songs you already know, they include the best performers around the world playing kids’ songs (classic and modern) from their own cultures. Plus, the liner notes are a great educational resource. We’re partial to Latin Playground and African Playground, and if you just want a sampler, try Putumayo’s two World Playground CDs and the forthcoming Animal Playground.

Robbi K: Robbi Hall Kumalo grew up in rural Long Island and became a professional musician. While looking for kids’ music for her daughters (she’s married to Paul Simon’s bassist Bakithi Kumalo), she found that the list of African-American women recording children’s music largely started and ended with the legendary Ella Jenkins (who would be on this list if I didn’t think you already know her). Robbi made that list longer with her own releases, including the infectious Set It Free and Keep the Beat and her new album, Music Makes Me Happy. Her music takes bits from all around the world, but she never sounds out of her element, whether evoking traditional American folk music, Zulu rhythms, or reggae. It all adds up to pure joy.

Happy Monster & Friends: The first CD from this group, Rhythm with Rhymes, is aimed a bit younger than the other CDs above. It’s largely made up of standard kids’ songs (“Old McDonald,” “Baby Bumblebee,” etc.) performed in a Caribbean style. In a lot of cases, that could be, frankly, terrible. But the sheer fun of the CD washes away any cynicism and will get your preschooler moving.

Asheba: Trinidad-born performer

Asheba blends calypso, reggae, and various other genres on his most recent album, Children Are the Sunshine. What really sets him apart is the liveliness of his studio recordings: even if he recorded a track in a windowless basement room, you still feel like you’re at Carnival (a kid-friendly Carnival, mind you). He was featured on the Kidzapalooza stage at last year’s Lollapalooza and will be on a tour put together by Putumayo Kids this summer.

Bill Childs is a Minnesota native and law professor in western Massachusetts. He and his 8-year-old daughter produce a kids’ music radio show, “Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child” ( Contact him at [email protected].

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