Staff Picks: Music
Just when it seems that we need some good news the most, this will warm your heart. Yesterday, NPR blogger Anastasia Tsioulcas caught my attention with a post about the Landfill Harmonic: An Orchestra Built from Trash. Through the efforts of a music instructor and a local craftsman, a group of hardworking kids in Paraguay have formed an orchestra using instruments made with materials gathered from beneath their very feet – literally.
The village of Cateura is a slum built on top of a landfill, where many of the locals make their living by collecting and reselling garbage. In a town where “a violin costs more than a house,” a group of students have formed an orchestra and are learning to play music. Orchestra director Favio Chavez works with a local craftsman who fashions violins, violas, flutes, trumpets and guitars out of discarded trash; oil drums, tin cans, spoons, bottle caps, you name it. Now this might sound like the makings of a bad circus band (no offense against circus music) but the result is nothing short of breathtaking.
The group is currently documenting their work in a yet-to-be released film; a short trailer for it was posted a month ago on YouTube and has already collected nearly half-a-million views. The film opens with a quote from Chavez, saying “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” In addition to the video, the group has set up a Facebook page to help spread the word about the orchestra.
In a world where we generate a ton of solid waste per capita every fifteen months (and that’s just in America) while school budgets get slashed beyond recognition, it’s refreshing to see what can be accomplished if the will is there.
Here’s an extended version of their story. It’s fascinating, watch it…
Landfill Harmonic Orchestra
I am a grown man in his thirties with no children and I can unabashedly say that my most anticipated pop culture event of 2011 is the forthcoming movie The Muppets. Both my wife and I were raised watching The Muppet Show, which aired from 1976 to 1981, and we developed a deep appreciation for creator Jim Henson’s sense of humor, which managed to cater to both children and adults while remaining cheekily subversive. Other Muppets projects like Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Dark Crystaland Labyrinth were all enduring, but between the original TV show and the first three feature films (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caperand The Muppets Take Manhattan), our hearts belonged to Kermit and the gang.
But after the shocking death of Henson in 1990, quality control of the Muppet brand went downhill. Suddenly, the Muppets were being plugging into existing stories like A Christmas Carol, Treasure Islandand The Wizard of Oz. These puppet-infused literary adaptations lacked true imagination and creativity—two things the Muppets themselves had long represented. Ownership of the Muppets changed hands a few times. During these dark days, it was most certainly not easy being green.
And then, sometime at the end of the 00s, a potential (and unlikely) savior emerged for the Muppets: a comic actor known for his goofy charm and often crude sense of humor named Jason Segel. The How I Met Your Motherstar had just come off the success of the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Wanting to capitalize on his cachet, Hollywood suits approached him and asked what he wanted to do for his next project. And of all things, he said he wanted to make a Muppet movie. Turns out, Segel, too, grew up watching the variety show and missed the days when Kermit and Co. had been relevant and irreverent. Disney, who had purchased the brand, was more than happy to oblige. That film, loaded with guest stars and smart humor, opens November 23rd and will hopefully re-launch Henson’s greatest creations back into the pop culture zeitgeist. I, for one, will be there opening day.
In the meantime, however, Disney has taken a step towards promoting the film by gathering together a group of alternative artists and producing Muppets: The Green Album. This collection puts a modern spin on some of the Muppets most beloved songs. Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams perform “The Rainbow Connection,” alt-rock group The Fray pulls off the catchy “Mahna Mahna,” and My Morning Jacket covers “Our World.” Other artists featured are Andrew Bird (“Bein’ Green”), Matt Nathanson (“I Hope that Something Better Comes Along”) and The Airborne Toxic Event (“Wishing Song”). But the albums best songs belong to Alkaline Trio’s fast-paced road song “Movin’ Right Along,” Sondre Lerche’s groovy “Mr. Bassman” and the ever-inventive OK Go’s cover of the “Muppet Show theme song.” (Check out their video below.)
Green is great for nostalgic fans as well as being a fantastic introduction for a new generation of Muppet enthusiasts. I can only hope that Segel has succeeded in making the Fuzzy Ones witty and inventive again. Even though I still have over a month of anticipation before the movie comes out, this album is helping to get me through the wait.
Muppets: The Green Album
Combining education and entertainment has always been a great way to learn; especially for young people. Grammy Award winning musicians They Might Be Giants have edutainment down to a science with the release of their 14th album, Here Comes Science. What better way to learn about topics such as photosynthesis, anatomy, outer space, chemistry and more than through great music. Young audio and visual learners will delight in this CD which also features a DVD filled with music videos. Check it out soon, and you too, will be humming the lyrics to the Bloodmobile!
Here Comes Science
Robert Schneider, of the super-awesome indie rock group The Apples in Stereo, is the mastermind behind the best kids CD of 2009, Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine. Schneider’s kid-friendly alter-ego, Professor Robbert Bobbert is a self-proclaimed “Genius inventor of musical mayhem.” Fans of Schneider’s work will love this CD because they will immediately hear the hooks and harmonies that make The Apples in Stereo great. The end result of this power pop infused kids’ CD is a car trip that won’t turn your brain into elephant droppings.
The stand out track “We R Super Heroes” is about the dream most kids have about being a super hero. Check out the video.
Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
There are many great songs to help little ones learn the ABC’s, but none will stick with you quite the same as Alphabutt; the title track of Kimya Dawson’s new alternative CD for children. My children and I laughed all weekend, and I can’t stop humming it now…A is for Apple, B is for Butt! Each track brings humor to the early parenting stages, that may seem difficult to endure at the time, but humorous in the end. We all need to pause, sing and laugh about such topics as: paying off our student loans, wiggling loose teeth, using the potty, being pregnant and waiting anxiously for the baby to move, nursing, and possibly having seven hungry tigers in our underwear drawer. Give this CD a listen, if for nothing else, than to make yourself giggle!
Since becoming a parent, I've paid a lot more attention to the latest kids' music CDs. There are a lot of choices - and sometimes, it seems as if the CDs are aimed as much at the aging, hipster doofus parents as at their offspring. One way kids' music artists appeal to parents' tastes is to release lullaby versions of songs they know and love. The idea isn't new - I remember seeing "Beatles for Babies" records decades ago - but the trend has grown.
Recently, power-pop cult figure Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish, Grays) released Bedtime with the Beatles Part Two. A gifted vocalist, he offers humming only on "Hey Jude", concentrating instead on instrumental versions of Fab Four faves, awash in his multi-tracked keyboard arrangements which nod to psychedelia while carrying children (and tired parents) off to dreamland.
While I'd sing most of these classics to my wee one, tunes like "Norwegian Wood" and "She's Leaving Home" are best left as instrumentals - I don't need questions about sleeping in the bath or runaways treating mums so thoughtlessly. Still, these are far from the most questionable kids' versions of songs out there - I can't decide which is the bigger head-scratcher, "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" (on Jersey Babys: the Music of Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons for Kids), or the Trent Reznor-penned "Hurt" (on Baby Love Lullaby: Lullaby Versions of Johnny Cash). Seriously - "everyone I know goes away in the end"? Night night, sweetie!
Bedtime with the Beatles