Funis not a word commonly understood to spearhead subversive politics. Yet when Dan Zanes discusses life and music it becomes clear that fun is the sword with which he fights the good fight. Meeting me in Boerum Hill just before the release of ¡Nueva York!, Dan Zanes and Friends’ new pan-Latino album, Dan shared his strategy for how his grassroots battalion of preschoolers and their parents will wage war against the dark forces that seek to divide us, laughing all the way.
If you’re a parent or young child, the presence of Dan Zanes’s craggy and laugh-creased face on the media landscape is hard to miss. There are ubiquitous albums, picture-books, and videos on children’s shows and networks. While the fortunes of a number of similarly placed figures, such as Laurie Berkner or the band AudraRox, are also on the rise, there is a distinction to be made. Zanes’s music is not, as he puts it, “music for children about the experience of being children,” but all-ages music to be listened to and enjoyed across generations.
It is all but certain that Zanes’s kiddie fans like him for different reasons than their elder relatives do. Having Zanes fans in my household, it’s not clear to me that they differentiate him from Elmo or Avatar as a character on tv. His fast hold on parental purse-strings, however, derives less from his publicity and merchandising talents than his personal appeal: the warmth and benevolence that emanate from Zanes in videos and onstage are genuine, and his rock ’n’ roll credentials are impeccable. The quality of the music, the cameos from Lou Reed and Philip Glass and Bob Weir, all ensure that Zanes remains, to paraphrase one writer, the musical salvation of parents everywhere. In terms of what is responsible for his success, it’s not the marketing, it’s the message: “Share the fun.”
In this light, the recent release of ¡Nueva York! makes perfect sense. Zanes is the first to admit that, after winning last year’s Grammy for best children’s album with Catch That Train, doing a Spanish-language record with songs from all over Latin America “doesn’t make much sense from a business standpoint.” But from a Zanes standpoint it does:
It really came out of a personal observation that the culture is being revitalized by people coming from, among other places, Latin America. I just really wanted to know more about my Spanish-speaking neighbors, and they have turned me on to so much music and culture. Many of them don’t feel particularly welcome, so personally I felt that this was a good time for learning to speak Spanish, partly as a sign of respect but really also because I realized that I wanted to get on board and stop missing out on all the fun!
To be at a Dan Zanes and Friends show is to see the message coming alive. Children are singing and dancing, parents are singing and dancing, strangers are cha-cha-cha-ing in a train around the orchestra pit. A tap dancer keeps staccato time on stage, Zanes leaps and plays his guitar behind his head, and then he pauses, clears his throat and prepares to reveal his special forces: a family band.
In each stop on his tour, a new local group is introduced onstage. Most recently, these have been Latino families who perform songs and sometimes dances from their homelands, while sometimes Zanes’s band backs them up. They say that families who play together stay together, and likewise, Zanes would add, communities that play stay and get stronger. Music that bridges cultural differences and unites the old, young, and middle-aged builds affection and empathy. The tangible results are stronger communities and stronger resistance to the divisiveness of “the last eight years that have pitted neighbor against neighbor,” or to a culture of consumerism that wants us to forget that we can make our own fun. As Zanes says:
I have a lot of political views. But my audience doesn’t really want me up on a soapbox, so I have to go about it in a different way. We’re all in it together here. Let’s make sure that everybody’s invited to the party. To sing with other people, even if it’s just friends who come over to the house and sing a few songs after dinner—you can’t underestimate the power of these experiences, and they really do plant seeds in the minds of young people.
The turning point in the development of Zanes’s progressive outlook was the birth of his daughter in 1994. His Boston-based rock band The Del Fuegos had split up, and he was living in New York. As the baby’s due-date approached, it became increasingly urgent for Zanes that he settle on precisely what would be the first song his daughter would hear when she entered the world. It had to be “one I dug but that at the same time was not wildly inappropriate.” The final winner was the Jamaican rock-steady version of “The Little Nut Tree” by the Melodians. Strangely enough, it never occurred to him that he could play something for her himself.
Similarly, he recalls that when he shopped for music for her he “expected to find updated versions of the Folkways records I had grown up with—Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Ella Jenkins. I found the original ones but not twenty-first-century ones, by which I mean records with old songs, new songs, songs drawing from a range of traditions, sounding relaxed and communal like a bunch of people in a house making music. It seemed like it really was corporate terrain. Of course I’m part of that now, but I remember thinking then, ‘If I can’t find it, I’ll make it.’ That really was the beginning and end of my thinking.”
His first family albums, then, must have been a dream come true. With their blend of Zanes’s band and guests like Sheryl Crow and Natalie Merchant, they featured classic songs like “Polly Wolly Doodle,” old sea shanties, and the Scottish waltzes Zanes seems so fond of, as well as island songs, songs in Spanish, and a handful of Zanes originals. This last category showcases Zanes’s evocative way with words and melodies and, to Brooklyn listeners, his references to sitting on stoops in the evening and hearing the ice cream truck tune for the millionth time pinpoint neighborhood life the same way that Springsteen’s early work captured the poignancy and longings of young adulthood.
Zanes takes the program one step further on ¡Nueva York! by reaching out into the culture and music of a wide array of Latino styles. Working under the tutelage of Bernardo Palombo, director of the Upper West Side’s El Taller Latino Americano, who helped Zanes to improve his Spanish and learn more about the many styles of Latino music, Zanes sifted through thousands of songs before settling on these eighteen. A standout among them is the Puerto Rican ballad “Verde Luz,” a beautiful song that is a parable for that island’s yearning for independence.
In addition to his usual cohorts, Zanes was joined by a number of other contributors, including spoken-word poet Caridad De La Luz (aka La Bruja), Mexico’s Villa-Lobos Brothers, renowned Argentine guitarist Quique Sinesi, and Fort Greene’s guitarist extraordinaire Marc Ribot, who has made his own forays into Latin music with Los Cubanos Postizos. Says Zanes, “The songs are not the way they would be played if they were just Latino musicians, and also not the way it would be played if it was just my band.”
“There is so much heritage embedded in songs, and we can learn a lot from each other,” Zanes continues. “Recently I spent three days with a humanitarian aid group on the Mexican-American border to try and get a sense of what’s happening there, and what’s happening is that taxpayer dollars are creating a military zone to declare war on Mexicans. It’s really heartbreaking; it’s such a broken system. For me, I think about music and I think you can build any kind of wall you want, but the music is still going to float up over anything, and that’s where the potential to build bridges and connect with each other exists.”
Was it E. M. Forster whose motto was “Only connect”? It would seem that making that motto tangible is the Dan Zanes mission. For Zanes, the fact that everything in his life and career have brought him here could not make him happier. “Turns out that everything I’ve always loved about rock ’n’ roll, all the creative possibilities of expression, I experience now on a much higher level. People ask me what it’s like to play for a family audience, and I can sum it up in one sentence: ‘We have wild dance parties before noon.’ No one else can say that. I love the sleep-deprived crowd. They are really loose!”
KK KOZIK is an artist and writer who lives and works in Sharon, Conn. and Brooklyn, N.Y.