Dan Zanes: Make Children’s Music More Diverse

 By Liz Buchanan

Dan Zanes seems to have found a passion – remaking the children’s music world so that it reflects the real world.   Zanes would like the face of children’s music to look more like the subway stop near his home in Brooklyn, NY, where most people are not white and the first language often isn’t English.

At a panel discussion at this year’s Kindiefest event in Brooklyn, Zanes spoke on the current state of music for children and families.  Asked to describe the music scene in one word, other panelists used words like “vibrant” or “playful” but Zanes couldn’t resist offering two words:  “Pretty white.”

Zanes has been there.  He used to be part of an average white rock group, coming of age musically as part of the ’80s roots band, the Del Fuegos.  By the early ’90s, the Del Fuegos had broken up, and Dan was a new parent at the local Brooklyn playground.  He and some of the other dads started playing music, and thus began Zanes’ new career in “family music” that ventured into a kaleidoscope of styles.

Today, the “friends” in the band Dan Zanes and Friends look more like the subway stop: Elena Moon Park masterfully plays trumpet and violin, to name only a couple of her instruments.  Sonia de los Santos delivers terrific vocals and Latin guitar rhythms from her Mexican heritage.  Drummer Colin Brooks, who happens to be black, is a bang-up entertainer in his own right.  They make diversity look effortless.

But when you look at the musicians who participate in events like Kindiefest – a conference on the family music business that happens each spring –  Zanes’ judgment isn’t far off base.  True, at Kindiefest this year I met Toni Wang, who was working on a CD of Chinese children’s classics, and Fred Ellis, an African-American who teaches music in the public schools in New York City and has recorded two CDs.  The event’s showcase of family-music bands featured The Uncle Devin Show, an awesome percussion act from Washington, DC.

But overall, Kindiefest looks similar to most CMN gatherings – mostly white and reflective of solidly American musical traditions such as folk, bluegrass and rock.  When Zanes asked me how diverse CMN is these days, I had to admit we don’t look like the subway stop, although I love that we have such members at our past President, Frank Hernandez, who’s Mexican-American, and my colleague Sulinha Boucher, a native of Brazil who brings many cultural influences into her music.

“We welcome everybody,” I added, noting that CMN’s founding principles are grounded in equality and multiculturalism.  Our Magic Penny Award has been given to Ella Jenkins, Suni Paz and Hawaiian Nona Beamer.  Many CMN members, including me, share our music in schools and communities with every income level and color of the rainbow.  We love singing and sharing multicultural songs.

Not good enough, Zanes insisted.  When a white performer or music teacher gets up in front of a multicultural audience, the kids form the impression that this is something mainly white people do.  They ought to see more people making music who look like them, he said.

But how do we do that?   Zanes encourages musicians to be more proactive: when you’re looking for others to play music with, seek out people with diverse ethnic backgrounds and musical styles.  When Zanes does a concert, he not only brings his own diverse band, he reaches into the community and finds someone who can showcase another musical style.

When I saw him perform earlier this year in Somerville, MA, Zanes’ concert featured the Boston City Singers, a multi-racial children’s gospel chorus, and a percussionist who played lively west African rhythms.  At Kindiefest, Zanes took the stage with Bomba Yo, a drumming ensemble in the African/Puerto Rican tradition, featuring with a rockin’ skirt dance (see below for video).

For CMN, we need concrete ways to attract more people of color to our gatherings and ultimately into our membership.  We ought to encourage truly multicultural music at CMN events – by the people of those cultures!  We could do much better at reaching out to diverse communities for our conference workshop leaders.

With more multicultural offerings, we’d be more attractive to attendees from communities of color.  We should also expand our scholarships for under-served communities.  At recent CMN gatherings in New England, we attracted an ethnically diverse group by reaching out to international students at Lesley University, inviting the staff at a local Head Start, and from a day-care center for children of homeless families. They all came in part because it cost them little or nothing.

We should also hold more CMN events right in the communities we seek to reach, sponsored in partnership with people in those communities.  A song swap could really turn into a happening event if somebody invited Bomba Yo!

Liz Buchanan is President of The Children’s Music Network.

5 comments

  1. Great summation. I appreciate Dan having the courage to bring this issue to the table. I look forward to working with CMN to help address this disparity and make the Kindie Industry more diverse.

  2. Thanks, Devin! We in CMN look forward to getting to know you better and working with you, too!

  3. Liz, this (article) is so well stated. True, CMN embraces diversity of musical styles for all the world’s children, and for children who may not be exposed to much diversity of music or other cultures especially. CMN also embraces the ideas of peace and harmony among the world’s peoples. But it would help if we had a more diverse membership– how much richer CMN would be. All the CMN members that I know (and that is a lot) wish we had a more diverse membership, culturally, so that we could present children with many “models” of music-makers (as Dan Z does in his concerts) and many musical styles and ideas (a lot of our music is heavy into the ideas as well as the fun of music!). Thank you for bringing this to our blog, Liz and Dan!

  4. Happy new year! Sorry to chime in so late…just discovered this post via a referral to my site! 🙂 Thank you, Liz, for addressing this subject, and I look forward to seeing everyone at KindieFest this coming April!

  5. Great to hear from you, Toni! It was fun to meet you at Kindiefest last year, and I hope things are going well with your music. I plan to be there at Kindiefest in April and look forward to seeing you there.

    Cheers,
    Liz

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