Putting Heart & Hip Into Children's Music

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Once a corner of the record store dreaded by parents, today's children's aisle is a hipper, happier place. Yes, there are still oodles of Wiggles tunes on the shelves, but they're flanked by cool stuff, too: Tween singers revamping '80s songs (Devo 2.0), weird pop bands making weirder kids music (They Might Be Giants), arithmetic tutorials set to hip-hop beats (Edu-Basics's "Multiplication Hip Hop").

Dan Zanes might be the guy to thank. Before he emerged as a beloved children's musician in 2001, Zanes was just a new dad lost in the record shop. Searching for some decent kids music for his daughter, the former Del Fuegos frontman scoured the racks. His options? Meh.

"Ninety percent of what was on the shelves was tied to a movie or a TV show. It was pretty corporate feeling," Zanes recalls. "I wanted an updated version of the Folkways records I grew up with. Where's the handmade music? The independent stuff? I wanted music that sounded like it was made out of driftwood and bent nails." (Barney is so not bent nails.) So Zanes started writing and performing songs for kids -- at home, at parties, on playgrounds and later on tour. His first kids album, "Rocketship Beach," followed in 2001, sparking a wee-ones music renaissance of sorts. Does he feel responsible for the shift?

"I don't know," Zanes demurs. "Even if I did, I would never admit it! I just think people's perception of family music has changed -- it's more legitimate because it's populated with people who are very sincere."

Here are some of Zanes's current favorites -- and some of ours:

· Elizabeth Mitchell

The singer for the indie-rock troupe Ida has two albums of lithe folk tunes for kids, and one with Gen-X pop chanteuse Lisa Loeb. Zanes says Mitchell is "someone I would listen to if there were young people around or not." Check out Mitchell's "You Are My Little Bird" when it drops later this month.

· Jose Luis Orozco

The Mexican-born singer and children's author has been performing bilingual children's music for more than 40 years. "That's where I go to learn good, traditional songs in Spanish," Zanes says.

· David Jones

Reissued a few years back, the English folk singer's "Widdecombe Fair" is a winning collection of folk ballads and sea chanteys, not to mention a big inspiration to Zanes. "It opened my mind to the fact that there's limitless possibilities," he says. "That one really knocks my socks off."

· Reggaeton Ninos

A quintet of youngsters dives into the current reggaeton hit parade, performing Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina," Don Omar's "Dile" and others. The lyrics are toned down for young ears but the renditions are fiery enough to get kids and parents dancing.

· Pancake Mountain

The locally produced TV show courts the biggest names in indie-rock to perform their kid-friendliest tunes for an audience of youngsters. Their latest DVD features performances from Bright Eyes, M.I.A. and Deerhoof.

· Putumayo Kids

World-music label Putumayo boasts a solid series of compilations for kids. Check out "Reggae Playground," a disc featuring tunes by Judy Mowatt, Toots & the Maytals and other reggae greats.

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