One Jams and One Soars

Two albums that express what quality children's music should be

40 Fingers
Neotribal
Elemental Sound
www.elementalsound.com and
www.40fingers.com

Ted Jacobs
A Child's Garden of Songs
Music for Little People R2 75683

Anyone who has ever been to a so-called drum jam knows what a chaotic and unsatisfying musical experience they usually are; the sound, more often than not, oozes along in an undifferentiated stream like linguine squirting from a pasta maker. Subtlety, form, and true ensemble are generally at a premium.

That, unfortunately, is all that many people know about hand-drum-based percussion ensembles--that, and the agreeable, if undistinguished, "tribal" musical wallpaper serving as backdrop for certain '80s art-rockers. As long as they stayed in the background, the percussive sounds of the "developing world" made us all feel "sensitive" and cosmopolitan.

40 Fingers to the rescue! This percussion ensemble, whose work is inspired by "traditional rhythms of Western and Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and good old American funk," have crafted an album that is various, entertaining, and a real ear-opener. Each of the ten tracks has a distinct timbral and musical character, often undergoing changes in texture and rhythmic emphasis along the way. The arrangements and instrumentation clearly underline the musical form, while the ensemble is so tight as to make each piece seem like the vital sounds of a living organism. No sonic background, this, but the music itself, front and center.

Every single sound on Neotribal is produced on an acoustic instrument, ranging from tabla drums to plastic hose, from llama nails to pots and pans. (Most of the instruments are pictured and identified, showing frontman Pete Barnhart's predilection for teaching.) Though the four musicians play some 35 instruments between them, they do not, happily, find it necessary to play all of them all the time. While the West African-inspired pieces feature dense textures of drums, bells, and shakers, the Middle Eastern-style tracks are more spare and transparent, relying on virtuosic flourishes and deft arrangement for their effect. Highly danceable rhythms usually predominate, though a couple of the pieces feature freestyle fantasies of windchimes, rain stick, and the like. "Raku," especially, with its bamboo chimes and eerily whistling plastic hose--which produces a sound like the one a bottle makes when you blow across the top, only continuously--is a lesson in how sensuous and lyrical percussion music can be.

Listenable on multiple levels, this album will give those who hear it the rhythmic drive that commercial pop music has made us demand, yet with a level of musical interest akin to chamber music. If everyone who drum-jams listened to recordings like this, drum-jams would be far more interesting.

Though it is hard to categorize in the narrow commercial sense, Neotribal can at least find a place in the broader category of "world beat" music. Ted Jacobs's charming settings of Robert Louis Stevenson are harder to define, occupying as they do a territory midway between simple artsong and refined folksong. Fortunately, the children's music scene is still far less ruthless in its demand of pigeonholeability than the adult music industry is, so projects like this can still find a place.

Jacobs's lovingly crafted settings of poems from Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses features beguiling tunes that, while faithfully serving the texts, avoid the predictable dumpty-dumpty-dum that often makes settings of children's verse reminiscent of falling down the stairs. Though Jacobs favors the musical language of folksong in his melodies, his instrumental accompaniments and interludes are delightfully well-fleshed-out. The sunny ensemble, consisting of child and adult singers, guitar, dulcimer, uillean pipes, pennywhistle, recorder, percussion, and (tastefully understated) synthesizer brings the poems to life in a way that is refreshingly immediate; if you've ever browsed through the book and found it too quaint to be appealing to contemporary kids, these songs will surprise you. (Though younger listeners may need definitions for words like trundle and counterpane.)

A Child's Garden of Songs has a quality similar to Jethro Tull's Songs from the Wood, with its use of instruments associated with folk music and its evocation of a bygone era's sensibilities. Many parents (especially those who spent their adolescent weekends playing Dungeons and Dragons--you know who you are) will enjoy this album for that reason and also because the childhood Stevenson depicts is really a metachildhood--a loving homage to childhood which, while never cloying or sentimental, speaks to the grownup as well as the youngster. For though the child who plays in the pages of his book is readily recognizable as a child, he is also (as Wordsworth put it) the "child to the man" whom the author eventually became, and it is that man who evokes him across the years. As the final song puts it: "long ago, the truth to say,/he has grown up and gone away,/and it is but a child of air/who lingers in the garden there."

  Scott Robinson is a frequent contributor of music reviews for Minnesota Parent.

 
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