Music to make the world go ‘round By Fred Koch
SHARING CULTURES WITH ELLA JENKINS, by Ella Jenkins, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $11.98, ww.folkways.si.edu; ages 3-8.
In her first recording of all-new material since 1999, Ella Jenkins is back with a collection that proves she is still on top of her game. Did I mention, critics are calling "Sharing Cultures" her best to date? Fans of her music can expect Jenkins' signature acoustic sound combined with beats and lyrics drawing from a mélange of global cultures and languages.
The first song, "Where Is Mary?" is classic Jenkins. First, you hear her baritone ukulele strummed with a soulful passion followed by the unmistakable voice of Jenkins singing verses in English and intermittent Spanish. The consecutive verses feature children from the LaSalle Language Academy of Chicago, also singing variations in English and Spanish.
The CD is full of songs from a diverse list of nations and cultures including Mexico, Ireland, Turkey, Russia and more. In addition to the students from the LaSalle Academy, Jenkins enlists a variety of fine musicians including Juan Díes (guitarist), Catherine Hall (vocalist, traditional Irish folk instruments) and Erwin Helfer (master boogie-woogie and blues pianist). Spoken-word selections are featured too, including "Dear Sir, I Cannot Go," a poem from Fiji; "Native American Tribes," which introduces children to a variety of tribal names; and "I Like Names," where Jenkins shares some of her favorite names that are palindromes (spelled the same backward and forward).
Other standouts include "I'm on My Way to Canaan Land," a gospel-flavored song that speaks to the struggles of Harriet Tubman during her journey via the Underground Railroad, and "I Want to Be Ready," which Jenkins recalls in the liner notes as a very popular a cappella song sung in African-American churches when she was a child. Jenkins shows off her signature vocals in "Trouble in Mind," accompanied by the amazing Helfer on piano. However, my favorite is an instrumental, "Bésame Mucho," a traditional tango that features Jenkins' soulful harmonica work accompanied by Díes on guitar and Mario Castro on the traditional guitarrón.
A contributor to children's music for more than 40 years, Jenkins is a true pioneer. Her classic recording "You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song" is still the best-selling record in the history of Folkways Records. Even at 78, Jenkins remains vibrant and involved as she skips around the globe performing for children and leading workshops for teachers. In November, Jenkins was presented with a Chicago Heroes Award by the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammy organization). The award is the chapter's highest honor. Congratulations and thank you, Ella Jenkins!
THE 5 ELEMENTS, by Rick Scott and Harry Wong, Kayako Music (Canada), Sol Concept Entertainment (Hong Kong), $15 (includes shipping), www.rickscott.ca, www.harrywong.cc; all ages.
Another world-class children's entertainer who believes that music is a way to help children bridge differences in culture and connect through the language of the heart is Canada's Rick Scott. Two of Scott's previous CDs ("Philharmonic Fool" and "Making Faces") are favorites of mine not only at home, but also with my third- and fourth-grade students. So, when "The 5 Elements" arrived, I dropped everything and gave it a spin.
Scott says before meeting Harry Wong, he'd been trying to find ways to combine "Asian sensibilities" and "Western groove." The result is a cross-cultural musical exchange where "East meets West with respect, humor and groove." Wong is an accomplished performer on the recorder and Chinese woodwinds. A longtime fan of Scott's family music, Wong has interpreted several of Scott's songs for Chinese audiences. But, it was his intrigue with Scott's unique style of dulcimer playing that prompted him to contact Scott for a visit. The result of their collaboration is "The 5 Elements," a one-of-a-kind recording.
The title refers to the ancient Chinese theory of the five elements of balance (metal, water, wood, fire, earth), which is clarified in the first song. The similarities come as they both playfully sing about brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers-Scott in English and Wong in Cantonese-in the second song, "Family." East meets West as Wong's astounding recorder melodies enriches the Western vibe of Scott's dulcimer.
Other highlights include "Cool School," which begins as a funky groove that accelerates into a Cantonese rap. Then there is "Hai Jai Mai (Big Ears)," a humorous tale about a friend with, you guessed it, big ears. Other outstanding tracks include "Happy Song," a traditional Chinese folk melody with words by Wong; "No Plan," a hilarious, almost stream-of-consciousness experience set to a funky R&B beat, and the final track, "Oh-O! Ta Da!," a tender song with the lyrics: "Have you ever been in such a situation / When there really is no explanation / Everything you try to do is wrong? / Well, you might like to remember this song… Oh-o! Ta Da!"
It is difficult to put into words how deep and fanciful this CD is. But I can say the interplay between the creative talents of Rick Scott and Harry Wong is nothing less than magical.
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