Rootsy musician Dan Zanes brings social awareness to kids folk music

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 thing.

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 stops.

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 movement?

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 took literally.

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 values?

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 it.

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 skills?


How could I not have an accent? I’m just glad that you appreciate it.

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 falutin’.

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 limitation.

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 activities.

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 doing?’

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 homeland.

There’s so much out there. The world is incredible. So all hands on deck!

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 band.

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 band.

That, and you’re friendly, inclusive and straightforward. Kids really pick up on that.

I agree.  Tell me more about Anna. I hear she just had her bat mitzvah.

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 that way.

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 feedback.

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 planet?

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 same way.

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 that conversation.

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 Andes mountains.

Oh man that would be incredible.

Do you think you’re a trendsetter? Role model?

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 lot.

That's why I feel like you pioneered it from the start.
 Whatever happened, it's good. I just go with it.

Don’t miss out on Dan’s latest collaboration with Father Goose, 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 jiggly.

Convonista says: Dan Zanes and I chatted in March of 2008, and this interview was originally released a few few weeks later.

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