What exactly is world music? According to the good old dictionary it is described as "music from cultures other than those of Western Europe and English-speaking North America, especially popular music from Latin America, Africa and Asia." So let's open up our ears and start our musical odyssey with some exciting multicultural music aimed at family audiences.
One of my personal favorite places to mine for great indigenous music is Putumayo Kids, the children's and educational division of Putumayo World Music. There are currently eight CDs and two activity kits in the series. The music is a fabulous introduction not only to world music artists but also a vast array of rhythms and instruments.
The two most recent releases are French Playground and Reggae Playground (Putumayo Kids, 2005 and 2006, respectively; $14.98 each; www.putumayokids.com). French Playground includes 12 French and French Creole songs by artists from France, the Caribbean, Africa and Quebec. Putumayo provides excellent informative liner notes and the lyrics are printed in French and English. The artists include popular children's performers from the respective countries and pop artists such as Pascal Parisot, Thomas Fersen, Tryo and Ariane Moffat. The songs cover a bevy of musical styles and offer a tasty insight into French life - family, good food, interesting locales and self-esteem are the topics of choice.
Reggae Playground features artists from Jamaica, America, Brazil, Morocco, Mauritius and Indonesia. Reggae music has influenced American pop culture since Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff rose to fame in the '60s, and the infectious bouncy style is a good fit for children's music. Among the highlights is Toots and the Maytals' rousing version of the John Denver classic "Take Me Home Country Roads" (it works, really!). In this version West Virginia becomes West Jamaica.
Before we leave the land of Putumayo, a new release called One World, One Kid (Putumayo Kids, 2006; $5.98; www.putumayokids.com) deserves a mention for a job well done. Six-year-old Skyler Pia put a world music radio show of Putumayo tunes and artist info together to cheer up a friend who was ill with cancer. A benefit CD was created and all the proceeds go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Bonnie Raitt says, "Skyler's passion and grasp of world music is nothing short of astonishing, at any age. How wonderful that this gift for his friend will keep giving joy and inspiration to kids in need everywhere." Kids will love Skyler and we may soon be hearing the youngest DJ ever.
The first family recording by popular Latin group Sol y Canto, El Doble De Amigos - Twice As Many Friends (Rounder Kids, 2003; $12.99; www.rounder.com) is a real winner. This 16-song collection of originals and bilingual takes on American and Latin favorites is finely produced and does not talk down to children. The "lessons" are positive, and the musicianship and vocals are excellent. There is just the right mix of English and Spanish and the supportive activities are top-notch.
Obviously, there are a ton of good world music CDs out there and I'm sprinting along to get you excited enough to check them out, expose your kids to them and see if they stick to the wall … OK, that analogy doesn't seem to work but I'm keeping it because you know what I mean.
There are groups that incorporate ethnic instruments with traditional stories to enhance the flavor and texture of their performances (been there, done that too) - the duo Toucan Jam does it well and their CD A World of Music (Toucan Jam, 2006; $15; www.toucanjam.net) is filled with sounds that will tickle your ears. The Australian didgeridoo has to be one of the weirdest instruments on the planet and the "Didgeridoo Song" shows it off in full measure and, as a sidebar, they also play goat toenails (don't know how the goat felt about that). "The Oud Is Not Food" showcases the lute-like Oud from the Middle East as well as Syrian drums. The blending of traditional American instruments (is there such a thing?) and exotic instruments is well done and the result is a magical musical melting pot.
Another dynamic duo, ZunZun, plays more than 30 instruments and their fifth release, Water Song (ZunZun Tunes, 2005; $14.98; www.zunzuntunes.com), glorifies the wonders of water - from the water in the human body to rain, sea, rivers and water conservation among other topics. "Rain Song" has only eight different words wrapped in a bed of wondrous sounds: Rain falls / music calls / rain falls / life for us all. The songs are richly textured, the message is on point and the use of ethnic instrumentation makes the environmental issues and the different world cultures more up close and personal.
Coming full circle, Trinidad-born Caribbean singer Asheba has been included in Putumayo's Caribbean Playground and Reggae Playground collections. His new CD, Children Are The Sunshine - Asheba's Caribbean Music for Children (COV Productions, 2006; $15; www.asheba.net) is loads of fun. The songs dance off the disc and children will be getting down and singing along in short order. Asheba says, "I want to connect with children and show them that the world is an interesting place. I also want to speak to the adults, who need to give children more - more hope, more trust and more exposure to the wider world." And more exposure to the wider world through music, the universal language, is what the essence of this article is all about.
If you like African music wherein Paul Simon found his inspiration for Graceland, give a listen to The Rough Guide to African Music For Children (World Music Network, 2005; $14.98; www.worldmusic.net). The title is a little cumbersome but the 66-minute CD is a great primer on African music - chosen by kids for kids. Guinean superstar Mory Kanté plays the kora and balafon, the African harp and xylophone. And when was the last time you heard Maasai rap? Well, try Tanzania's X Plastaz on for size. Ladysmith Black Mambazo sound terrific as usual, and the rest of the all-star lineup will have even Grandma getting down with her good self!
World music belongs to everyone. Enjoy!
John Wood is the contributing music reviewer for United Parenting Publications. You can read more of John's Listen Up! columns and music reviews in our music review archives.