Unless you've been living under a rock, any parent this side of
the moon who has welcomed a dimpled, diaper-clad cutie to the world
since the dawn of the millenium has heard of Dan Zanes, a wild and
woolly rootsy activist with a rockin' hairdo that evokes both Don
King and the Statue of Liberty with one glance.
His attitude is completely unexpected and unpretentious, humble,
down-to-earth, and very easy-going ... kind of like Mister Rogers
sans the button-down cardigan. Blazers bedecked with polka dots,
raspberry-colored pants and loud argyle socks are more his
When we chatted, Grammy-award winning Zanes was on the blustery
streets of Brooklyn on a mission to have his mandolin repaired - of
course - but was gracious enough to let me play Nancy Drew between
You sound sleepy!
Not at all, you caught me in my natural state. I'm wide awake,
and in fact, I'm out on the street with the wind blowing. Hopefully
it's not too much.
Can you hear me now?
How did you ever decide to make the transition from
fronting 80's garage-pop band the Del Fuegos to pioneering a
folksy, eclectic, boho chic, child-friendly musical
Well, I don't know if I'm a pioneer. But it came really
naturally to me. When my daughter was born I was making a solo
record and I grew up listening to handmade folk music and when I
discovered rock and roll it didn't really seem like listening to
Chuck Berry or Du Wop was that different from listening to Woody
Guthrie [one of the most famous and influential American folk
singers of the 20th century].
I think it was the speed of the music. It was sort of handmade
and inclusive and communal and kind of loose and relaxed and fun.
And when I played rock and roll, that's what I liked about rock and
roll. Then, when I started doing this [family music] it was the
same thing. It was everybody of all ages invited to the party.
I also wanted to listen to music with my daughter [Anna]. I
wanted it to be a shared experience. That's really what I was
looking for and I didn't quite find it. I didn't find the sound I
heard in my head, so I decided to try and make it.
From what I understand, "making it" was something you
Yeah, I made a cassette at home to give out to families in the
neighborhood and it was pretty fast and really fun to do, and it
was mainly taking old songs and updating them and my solo record
came out at that time, and people were much more interested in this
cassette that had just taken me a couple of weeks to make than they
were in my solo record, which had taken me a long time to make so I
got the message and it was really fun. I've always gone where the
fun is. What's not to love about music for all ages?
You call your latest, soon-to-be-released compilation,
¡Nueva York!, a pro-immigration CD and are often described as being
a champion for social change. Do you feel that your music and more
importantly, musical message, reflect your socio-economic
I think you kind of have to dig - it's all there. You just take
it or leave it really depending on what you want out of the
experience, but if you want to know where I'm coming from, it's all
in the music. It's so simple. At least for me, immigration is all
really simple. And one of the things that I always ask myself is
whether or not everybody invited to the party, including the people
living in the U.S. who really don't feel welcome or wanted here. I
think that's heartbreaking, it's unnecessary, it's mean-spirited,
and it's short sighted.
I went down to Nogales [Arizona] and saw the wall that's been
going up between the U.S. and Mexico, and it's such a horrible
symbol of all that's gone wrong. It's like the rich neighbor built
this huge wall to keep the poor neighbor out.
It's almost like another Berlin Wall.
To see the wall and to be around it and to feel the animosity
and the exclusion is really a life-changing experience for me, and
yet, as a musician I'm always in situations with other people that
are actively building the bridges to overcome it.
As musicians, we all have a responsibility to build these bridges,
and songs will float up above any wall that could ever be built, as
long as we're connected to each other. But at this point and time,
I think we have to make that a goal. It's not going to happen all
that easily on its own. We have to work at it and we have to want
As soon as I started thinking more along those lines, magically
all these incredible people started appearing in my life and I have
such an amazing group of Latino friends here in New York who have
opened eyes so much. It's been really emotional and satisfying and
eye-opening and life changing and all that, and it's been very
musical. All of us together are very musical, and that's how we
ended up with Nueva York.
We've been listening to ¡Nueva York! every evening here at
home - I'm originally from Chile, so my son has been exposed to a
great variety of music, particularly Latin American music since he
was inutero - which, in turn has prompted a series of happy, nitty
gritty, down and dirty dance parties in our playroom.
However, I have to say, I noticed and love your gringo
[a.k.a.: American] accent - is your interest in Spanish sounds
prompting you to fine tune your Spanish speaking
How could I not have an accent? I'm just glad that you
I felt kind of awkward about it but I really just worked as hard
as I could it. Sonia de los Santos [who does vocals and plays the
guitar and mandolin] really helped me a lot, and she really came
into all this at the right time, and I don't really know if it all
could have happened without her. She's really been a huge help with
all of it and continues to be. So again, I always feel blessed that
people have appeared right at the right time. They really help
carry it all home.
In this case, I think your novice's accent adds a sense
of charm - an approachability that's friendly, not high
That's great. I love that way of looking at it and I hope that's
the way it comes across. I really worked my tail off because I
wanted to be respectful as possible - but it was a huge
Are you fluent?
No, I'm not fluent but estoy practicando todos los dias [I'm
practicing every day]
Bueno, lo haces muy, muy bien. Te felicito. [Well, you are
doing it very, very well. Congratulations]
Muchas gracias! [Thank you!]
The music on ¡Nueva York! is deliciously intoxicating
- like that feeling you get after a particularly joyous
tryptophan-heavy, homemade Thanksgiving meal. And that whole
homegrown vibe carries over, past the meal, to dessert if you will,
in the sense that it gets people dancing, enjoying and best of all,
trying something new. Is that your message at its core? Communal
music that gets people into playing, exploring, and loving
different styles of sound?
The main message for has always been that music making is
available to everybody. This is something we can all do. And though
I would never encourage people to run out and become professional
musicians, I would encourage everybody to make their own music,
whether it's singing songs, just learning enough so you can sing a
few songs with other people, or learning to play an instrument well
enough so you can play with other people. Whatever works.
There's so many variations as to what music making is, and that's
the thing about our shows and that's the thing about our records
that we're always aware of - are we being good messengers for this
idea that anyone can make music?
Hopefully people walk away from the shows and think, 'That was
fun! I want to do that too! That doesn't seem so hard actually.'
Because the truth is, it's not. Certainly, historically, America
has always been a very musical country, but there's so much
electronic media now that we've gone into this state of being
consumers. I'd love to see some sort of return to this casual
communal music making and I think it's totally possible. The family
audience is the perfect audience for that concept. Because you
know, us family people are always looking for social
Amen to that. You're known for being a musical
visionary, bringing a 21st century twist to folk music that's
filled with fabulous flavors borrowed from traditional Peruvian,
Caribbean, Latin American and even Scottish music. What is it about
global culture that moves you?
I recently went to Cuzco and Lima and am making plans to go to
Bolivia and Puerto Rico in two weeks. There's so much to do and see
and I feel like, 'What was I thinking for most of my life that I
wasn't wildly curious about Latin America? Where was I? What was I
It's really such an eye-opening experience to go anywhere in
Latin America for the first time. I feel like when I went to Mexico
City and Oaxaca for the first time I found my spiritual
There's so much out there. The world is incredible. So all hands
Concerned and caring people have so many opportunities to be
helpful right now. There's so much work to be done, especially in
terms of immigration and deportation issues.
Are you a globetrotter?
I don't know. Global culture is a pretty big one right there. I'm
much more of a one step at a time kind of person, and right now,
I'm completely focused on a handful of countries and the people
from those countries who live here.
I grew up in New Hampshire - in the white mono-culture - so I
think that's really what it is. I grew up with very little exposure
to the world outside, and I'm a musician, so I'm curious! I feel
like I have to make up for lost time now.
Speaking of global culture and different people, I love
the mixed bag you have going on in your very own
It's so exciting for me. I just love it. This is the best band
I've ever played in.
I think that's why you end up with hordes of devoted fans.
You're not like other bands. You're missing this predictability
factor, which makes the DZAF [Dan Zanes
and Friends] experience even more intriguing.
It's all very personal. My choices are personal, and the popele in
the group were not necessarily the best musicians I interviewed at
the time, but they were definitely the right people to be in this
That, and you're friendly, inclusive and straightforward.
Kids really pick up on that.
Tell me more about Anna. I hear she just had her bat
She did, indeed.
Mazel tov! Does she want to follow in your footsteps or
is she into blazing her own creative trail?
Gracias. [Thank you.] It's very fun. She's 13, she's into English
punk rock music and lovest the Sex Pistols. She asked me if I'd dye
her hair black a few weeks ago, and I did of course, and she wanted
red streaks in it, which I did yesterday, and she likes black eye
liner and this other stuff I don't completey understand.
I think she's blazing her own trail, but she is starting a band
which is kind of neat. I think she's just off in her own dream
machine, whatever that's going to mean, we'll see. It's much better
I love her. She's really cool. I couldn't be more proud or more
excited watching her grow up.
As long as she does well in school and treats people well, she can
do whatever she wants with her hair and what she wears. She's
really a great kid and I'm just really lucky.
Does she dig your music?
Anna has really been supportive and has good opinions for me, and
so do all the other grown-ups around me, I need their opinions,
too, so its been great.
It's good to know you can get honest
Oh yeah, I need that.
In checking out your Friends & Bios page on the web
site, I noticed that your concerts and proceeds from your records
benefit different humanitarian and environmentally conscious
causes. Are you and your family particularly vested into any
particular cause like HIV/AIDS treatment or saving the
We've been giving a portion of our records to Heifer International for a long
time and that's one that makes a lot of sense. I mean, world hunger
is such a big thing.
Heifer International just has a great program that's really easy
to explain to children. Environmental issues, is what we initially
were most most focused on, but it's hard to explain to kids in the
What I've noticed is that kids really care about kids, and they
care about the idea that there's other kids around the world that
don't eat breakfast or can't eat breakfast. That, and the fact that
thousands of people die every day. Many of them are young people
that die every day from hunger and related illnesses and that
really means something to kids. And if you can explain that
something is going to help fight world hunger - kids have so much
empathy. And I think now with deportation taking center stage, all
these issues are family issues. Deporation is tearing families
apart everyday, and that injustice is easy to explain to kids and
it's very important. Kids that are really young can even understand
So are you into green living at all?
I do my best. I think about it - I think I'm conscious but it
never feels like enough.
I know what you mean. Recycling newspapers and plastic
bottles somehow feels a little lacking.
We all just have to do our best.
I get the feeling that you're just this free-spirited,
friendly-faced, eclectic neighborhood fixture who would invite me
into hang out if I knocked on your door in Brooklyn.
That's pretty much the case - we could practice Spanish and talk
about Chile. You planted the seed now.
Just think of the scenic drives through the snow-capped
Oh man that would be incredible.
Do you think you're a trendsetter? Role
No, I really don't think of myself as a trendsetter or role
model. And I can't let myself think that way. I'm just doing my own
thing and I'm happy it reaches people however it may. It's too much
for me to think about it that way. It was difficult when I started,
too. People felt sorry for me. They were like here's this guy
that's going to be singing about brushing your teeth and eating
with a fork and getting no where since the idea of what family
music can be was so narrow back then. It's really changed a
That's why I feel like you pioneered it from the
Whatever happened, it's good. I just go with it.
Don't miss out on Dan's latest collaboration with Father
It's A Bam Bam Diddly. It's a Carribbean-flavored dance party
that will have all ages and stages in the family getting wiggly and
Convonista says: Dan Zanes and I chatted in March of 2008,
and this interview was originally released a few few weeks
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.
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