Homespun musician Dan Zanes raises immigration awareness with ‘The Welcome Table’

There are two really good ways to describe Grammy-winning musician Dan Zanes: iconic and approachable. And when you make your living singing cross-cultural children’s songs while raising awareness of social issues facing communities across the board at the same time, both are pretty darn important.

The Welcome Table – Songs of Inspiration, Mystery and Good Times is Zanes’ latest release and a collection of old and (mostly) new Dan Zanes & Friends recordings drawn primarily from North American gospel traditions. All follow the delightfully toe-tapping, mellow yet groovy DZAF signature style, inspiring anyone and everyone to get down and dance at a moment’s notice.

Better yet, the CD benefits The New Sanctuary Movement, which is a coalition of interfaith religious leaders and participating congregations called by their faith to respond actively and publicly to the suffering of immigrants living in the United States.

Since the down-to-earth Zanes is always ready to lend an ear, play a song and help a cause, he’s steadily built an eclectic, live concert-loving following made up of pint-sizers and their parents (our brood included), ready and willing to offer a helping hand to those less fortunate.

Dan was kind enough to join me for a second interview (read the first interview here) to tell me about the the latest and greatest going on in Brooklyn and beyond.

How did you decide on the mix of songs included in The Welcome Table?

We wanted to make a gospel record but decided to go with a broad definition of what “gospel” could be and wanted to include the Spanish-speaking community because of The New Sanctuary Movement, and had to have a Jewish song in there of course. And because The New Sanctuary Movement is in churches and synagogues and mosques, we wanted to stay close to that. We wanted to get Arabic on there, too, but sort of came up short.

Next time!

We were just in Bahrain for the first time this year and it’s one of my top three favorite concerts of all time. We just felt so appreciated by the Arabic audience there. We did sing some songs in Arabic, too, so I’m really excited to go back and dig further into that.

How’s your Arabic accent?

Probably a lot like my Spanish accent. Not very good.

I give you credit for giving it your best go.

Well, thanks, I appreciate that and your kind words about Nueva York!

Tell me about your involvement with The New Sanctuary Movement.

Once we started hanging out with more Latino musicians in New York, we started becoming more aware of deportation issues, and through some friends, met the people involved with The New Sanctuary Movement. They were just starting up, they’d only been around for about a year and for me, they were the people who helped me understand how widespread and tragic the whole situation of deportation really is.

I felt like my experience with them was so powerful, and felt like a lot of the people in our audience were in the same boat I was in, which was having a little bit of an idea about deportation overall, but until you have a face put on it, it can be abstract. Without having anyone you know affected by it, your family or your community, you might feel like it’s someone else’s issue. But it’s obviously everybody’s issue because the health of our whole country depends on how we treat the people whose families and lives are really at risk.

Almost half a million people were deported last year, for reasons most of us would consider trivial. I think the people in our audiences are really caring people and so I thought if we could do something to steer people to The New Sanctuary Movement, a lot of people might get on board and look at the situation a little more closely.

The fact that people are called “illegals” from the start makes it sounds like they’ve done something wrong and deserve to be punished somehow, and I think the process for it all is just so unjust. The language and the system and everything just picks on them on every level and I think it’s like border security. Nothing that’s ever really worked very well. There’s more and more people that die in the desert and we’re not at a point of questioning it, and even the politicians we love are not questioning it so there’s so much that needs repair.

I went to a Mexican town on the migrant trail and saw people being rounded up, stuffed into vans, some girls my daughter’s age, being surrounded by dogs and being driven right back to the border. People with swollen feet and blisters, dehydrated, pregnant women, all that stuff. And really, they all just looked like working people. They looked just like the people I grew up with in New Hampshire, except they happened to be Mexican.

You’ve gone from solely being this organic, wild and rootsy pioneering musician, to being a kind of homegrown hero. Did you intend for your career to work out that way?

I feel like I’m just another guy just trying to figure it all out and am not predisposed in any special way in wanting to do more or say more. I think I’m just an average citizen. Fortunately though, because of music and the people I get to hang out with I have the easy way in or the easy way to participate.

I give people a lot of credit and think that most people want to help and just don’t have the information, the support or contacts they need to do something of value in the community. It keeps us a little separated from each other.

And critics?

Naysayers get a lot more attention than they deserve and it makes them seem like there are a lot more of them than there really are, but I really think the majority of people really do care and want to help their neighbors no matter where they’re from. I think we all want to understand each other, and I think we all want to sing each other’s songs and eat each other’s food. Make life exciting anyway.

Tell me about your relationship with Anna – how is she doing?

She’s great. She’s a 14-year -old punk rocker, which works for me – she’s a good kid. We went to see Green Day the other night and that was fun so it’s really cool. I feel incredibly lucky. We play musoic together a lot.

Is she still into the daddy/daughter thing thinking you’re pretty cool?

Let’s just say she has a lot of friends and they think I’m cool, so that’s good enough for me.

Convonista says: Dan Zanes and I caught up in 2009, and this interview ran a few weeks later.

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