Koloc puts poems to music on masterful ‘Bestiary’

Music - May 2005


Fred Koch


As parents, we are literally deluged with music. To my ears, most of it is mediocre at best, so pay attention to this month’s picks because we only spotlight what we feel is really worthy of your attention. This month we highlight two of the CD projects that have found their way into my “got to find time to write about these CDs” pile. The first features a longtime favorite with Chicago audiences, Bonnie Koloc, who just released a book/CD combo that was eight years in the making.

A BESTIARY: BEASTS OF THE FARM, by Bonnie Koloc, Ruskin Press, $32, www.bonniekoloc.com; all ages. I was driving to one my graduate classes a few weeks ago when over the radio came a whimsical song about—of all things—a goat. I was sure I recognized the singer. I was also wide-eyed with excitement over the arrangement, and certain that my students would love this song.

It was indeed Bonnie Koloc singing, and that multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Howard Levy was also involved. A week later Koloc herself called, offering to send a copy of her new project, a CD and book of “poems to sing.” 

After I received the CD, I put it on and listened intently following the poems in the companion book. Not only did Koloc write the poems and the songs, but she also created 13 black-and-white linoleum block prints—one for each of the farm animals. 

And her work as a visual artist has not gone unnoticed. “A Bestiary” won best in show at the Iowa State Fair Art Salon in 1996. Previously available in a limited box edition, the new version of the soft cover book comes with this amazing CD.

The songs and musical treatments are as varied as the farm animals themselves. And though purposely sparse, the musical arrangements and production support the song and Koloc’s intimate interpretations.

OK, back to the songs. One of my favorites, “The Goat,” begins with an accordion introduction that will have you longing for a good Chianti and homemade pasta, then quickly veers off into a humorous plea that you “don’t get a goat.” The imagery comes alive as Koloc sings, “His kids are darling/ and he makes great cheese/ but he’ll eat your undies and your neighbor’s trees.”

The imagery factor plays a vital and vivid role in all of these songs. And isn’t that the mark of a skilled songsmith? In song after song, we hear a clear and concise portrait of a particular farm animal, whether it be “The Pig” (“Sitting down with a thud/ in a yard full of mud/ puts him in the most delightful mood”), “The Dog” (“Get down/ good boy/ get down Rex/ don’tcha get mud on my Sunday best”) or “The Duck” (“Out of his egg he breaks with his beak/ the duckling arrives with a mighty peep!”).

Koloc says this project is rooted in her own childhood experiences. “As a child, I loved the yellow records that were in a book for the stories of ‘Bambi,’ ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella,’ ” she says. “I played them over and over again, and they were very good music. I’m hoping that this piece will introduce children to different instruments and different styles of music, and also help them realize that there are rhythms, not only in music, but also in language and in art, and that they can all go together.”

Not only will children enjoy Koloc’s project—inspired by the work of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the artist Raul Duffy—but parents and teachers will also find her work artistically satisfying and worthy of its recent praise.

I grow fonder this CD each time I hear it. This is a magnificent work of artistry from an extraordinary and passionate artist.

You can hear samples of three of the songs (goat, cow and horse) on Koloc’s Web site, www.bonniekoloc.com. Click on the “Buy ‘A Bestiary’ Online” link at the top the site.

WE ALL LAUGH IN THE SAME LANGUAGE, by Marla Lewis, Plum Juice Records, $15, www.marlalewis.com; ages 5-10. I would recommend buying this CD if just for the title track. Not that the other songs aren’t outstanding, because they are. It is simply that “We All Laugh in the Same Language” is an incredible song.

The song uses a familiar theme in which children are introduced to other languages by saying “hello” in each of them. But it is how an artist takes the familiar and makes it memorable that separates the mediocre from the exceptional. This is exceptional. I am always in awe of artists who take an overexposed topic and make it fresh. Marla Lewis has done it here.

(I feel the same way about Jim Gill’s “Oh Hey, Oh Hi, Hello,” featured on the Chicago Parent compilation CD, “Singin’ in the City.” I thought all the great “hello” songs were written until I heard his unique and wonderfully creative take on the theme.)

Lewis’ song has quickly become one of my third-grade students’ favorite songs to sing—they want to feature it in our spring music program for their parents. The chorus has a very melodic and singable hook. Our favorite part is: “We all cry when we feel sorrow/ we all love our family/ we all pray for a better tomorrow/ ’round the world, you and me.”

Even the legendary folk music icon Pete Seeger says that the title track “is so good I’m mailing it to Sing Out! Magazine suggesting they contact you and get permission to print it!”

Sometimes the best music for children is not easily accessible. But with the Internet, we can listen to music samples before we buy. So stop by these artists’ Web sites to check out their marvelous albums. 

Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children’s musician and producer. His Web site, www.BestChildrensMusic.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children’s music. Please e-mail notes and comments to fred@bestchildrensmusic.com.

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