July 23, 2017

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Multicultural Music for Children

From the left: Suni Paz,Ella Jenkins, and José-Luis Orozco

From left: Suni Paz, Ella Jenkins, and José-Luis Orozco with friend.

Music spans every culture, and exposing students to diverse musical offerings is a great way to expand their outlook on the world. That can mean learning nursery rhymes, folk songs, and lullabies from other countries, or simply being able to greet friends or count to 10 in multiple languages. These performers and record labels will help build or enhance your bilingual and multicultural resources.

Ella Jenkins, Suni Paz, and José-Luis Orozco helped bring greater attention to multicultural music during the mid-20th century, and all three were at the forefront of incorporating music across school curricula. More recently, artists such as Mariana Iranzi and Grammy-winners Lucky Diaz and Dan Zanes have produced several CDs that celebrate kids music in English and Spanish, while others such as Elena Moon Park and Grammy-nominee Elizabeth Mitchell have familiarized listeners with international folk songs and nursery rhymes.

Record labels including the Secret Mountain and Putumayo Kids have made it their mission to shine the spotlight on global children’s music. Both have released compilations of traditional tunes, circle songs, and sing-alongs, accompanied by books with the songs’ lyrics and explanations of their historical significance. The venerable Smithsonian Folkways label has been at it for decades, hosting a seemingly endless collection of children’s songs from around the world.

Music doesn’t have to be performed in a language other than English to be multicultural. Global superstars such as Lord Invader, Lead Belly, Father Goose, and Ewan MacColl all have released English-language albums that celebrate traditional Caribbean, African-American, Irish, and English songs, among others.

When children become familiar with diversity of cultures, they value traditions and lifestyles from different lands. Plus, music is wonderfully joyous! Let’s explore the world through song.

THE FORERUNNERS

Ella Jenkins

Music icon Ella Jenkins arguably kickstarted the multicultural music movement for kids with her 1957 album Call-and-Response: Rhythmic Group Singing. Her work for the Folkways label has introduced young listeners to songs, chants, and rhymes of cultures from every inhabited continent and from African American history. Jenkins’ intimate, almost conversational style lends itself well to learning new songs.

Suni Paz

Activist and artist Suni Paz also recorded for Folkways, and her albums Children’s Songs for the Playground, From the Sky of My Childhood, and ALERTA Sings (1977, 1979, and 1980), are bilingual treasure troves of traditional play songs and sing-alongs. An outspoken representative of the oppressed and disadvantaged, Paz has celebrated dance and music in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.

José-Luis Orozco

The prolific José-Luis Orozco has released dozens of albums of children’s tunes in Spanish and English. Lirica Infantil (1971) is the first of 13, presenting movement songs, rhymes, holiday tunes, and traditional music from Latin America, plus original compositions suitable for classroom activities and sing-alongs. His collaborations with illustrator Elisa Kleven produced a trio of songbooks—De Colores and Other Latin-American Folk Songs for Children, Diez Deditos, and Fiesta (Dutton; 1994, 1997, and 2002)—all library patron favorites.

From the left: Mariana Iranzi, Lucky Diaz, and Elena Moon Park.

From left: Mariana Iranzi, Lucky Diaz, and Elena Moon Park.

CURRENT STARS

Mariana Iranzi

Argentinian native Mariana Iranzi employs a global array of musicians, particularly from Latin America, to contribute to her albums. The contemporary production and arrangements lend an organic, authentic feel. Spanish and English lyrics intermingle and dance, at times allowing listeners to interpret through inference.

Start with: Hola Hello (self-released, 2013)
Recommended track: “El Tren”

Lucky Diaz

Grammy-award winner Lucky Diaz melds traditional Chicano instrumentation with indie rock production, giving his albums an energetic, garage-band feel. Diaz and his wife, Alisha Gaddis, have released family music CDs in Spanish, English, and bilingual productions. With palpable vitality and joy, his songs are great for classroom sing-alongs or living-room karaoke.

Start with: Aqui, Alla (Rainy Day Dimes, 2014)
Recommended track: “De Colores”Elena Moon Park

Elena Moon Park

Musician and educator Elena Moon Park incorporates her Korean family background, Tennessee upbringing, and tenure in Dan Zanes’s band for a unique blend. She’s also the development director at Found Sound Nation, an agency that helps connect people around the world through music. On Park’s debut album, Rabbit Days and Dumplings, melodies and instrumentation of Appalachian and eastern Asian tunes interweave to present traditional songs from Korea, Taiwan, China, and Tibet.

Start with: Rabbit Days and Dumplings (Festival Five, 2012)
Recommended track: “San Toki”

1601_Music-RecordLabels-LogosRECORD LABELS

Smithsonian Folkways

Founded as Folkways Records in 1948, Smithsonian Folkways has long been a proponent of the exploration of global music, most often using primary sources. Imagine listening to Central American tunes sung by children from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, or an East African performer talking about and singing traditional Kenyan children’s songs. The website features a useful “Tools for Teaching” tab.

Start with: Lullabies and Children’s Songs (UNESCO/Smithsonian Folkways, 1972)

The Secret Mountain

A Canadian-based publisher of children’s books, videos, and audio recordings, the Secret Mountain produces albums of regionally specific music accompanied by picture books. The production and arrangements are tastefully modern, retaining the traditional feel and sound of the rhymes, lullabies, and songs. Each book/CD combo includes illustrations and lyrics, as well as printable files of words, pictures, and song charts.

Start with: Songs in the Shade of the Olive Tree: Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes from the Maghreb (Secret Mountain, 2012)Putumayo Kids

Putumayo Kids

Putumayo World Music’s goal is to introduce people to songs of global cultures, and that also applies to Putumayo Kids. Every album features British illustrator Nicola Heindl’s folk art illustrations and extensive notes about the songs and cultural traditions. Not necessarily performed as true-to-roots as, say, Smithsonian Folkways, the songs nevertheless present lively, culturally true songs.

Start with: World Playground (Putumayo Kids, 1999)

Warren Truitt is a musician and a former senior children’s librarian at the New York Public Library.

This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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