Go to the children’s music section in Tower Records and let the hurling begin. (I realize I promised no mentions of vomit in this week’s column, but my editor is on vacation. Vomit, vomit, vomit. Don’t tell her.) Generally, music intended for children is perky, chipmunk-y, condescending, cloying and unlistenable for anyone old enough to cut her own meat. Most kids’ music seems designed to tell ham-handed moral lessons about sharing, being polite, and buying as much Disney-produced plastic material as possible.
Granted, I’m a tough audience. As you might be able to tell from the infantile, I-have-an-authority-problem parenthetical in the first paragraph, I am fond of independent-label, smart-mouthed rock ’n’ roll music. When I was pregnant, my father called while I was blaring very loud, old-school punk-rock music. “What, exactly, are you listening to?” he asked, horrified. “The Ramones,” I said. “Are you aware that you’re pregnant?” he sputtered. “You’re going to turn my grandchild into a moron!” (For some reason, pointing out that Joey Ramone’s real name was Jeffrey Hyman didn’t mollify him.)
Honestly, my taste in music is broad and democratic. And Josie, at 16 months, seems to have inherited it. She loves everything. During breakfast, when we play the Coup’s socialist hip-hop, she bops her head in time to the beat, grinning. She listens intently to “Peter and the Wolf” (narrated by David Bowie), clutching my hand at the scary, sinuous, wolfy parts. She bends her knees and bounces along to Jonathan Richman’s peppy punk, sings “Baa baa baa baa” (technically, that’s “Baa baa black sheep”) on pitch, loves to hear niggunim as lullabies, wiggles to Cuban jazz, techno, old R&B and klezmer.
So I enrolled her in Music Together, a national program for the under-3 set informed by early-childhood music education. The instructors are trained in its philosophy, and everything is very developmentally appropriate and research-based and icky. The songs are insipid, and the instructor did that whole over-emotive bug-eyed goopy-voiced jazz-hands thing, like the hammy children on Barney. I bonded with another East Village mom because we both were so turned off. (Our daughters loved it. But let’s all remember, if left to their own devices, they’d eat dirt. Their taste is questionable.) Now the other mom and daughter and Josie and I all go to Music for Aardvarks, and we’re all happy.
What is Music for Aardvarks, you may ask? It’s a much more informal music class founded by a former Music Together teacher, David Weinstone. He’s a rock musician who writes his own songs that reflect an urban toddler’s experience. MFA features catchy ditties about bagels, the Staten Island ferry, firetrucks, living in a walkup. A fluffy bunny appears in only one song… and in it, the bunny goes to jail. There’s even a very Beastie Boys-flavored song about the sights and sounds of Avenue A. As in Music Together, the tots sit in a circle, use tambourines, egg shakers, maracas, bells, triangles and castanets. They clap in rhythm, run around in circles and have crazy dance interludes (though MFA kids dance to Bob Marley and Music Together kids dance to twinkly numbers about mice). But if you look around the room, you’ll see parents tapping their feet and smiling rather than looking slightly mortified or catatonic. I’d been told that the teaching in MFA can be uneven, but Josie and I lucked out with Laura, our instructor. She looks like a rock star with her tattoos, bottle-blond hair and low-slung cords, but she is amazing with kids and has a deliciously smoky, husky voice. After class, she lets the toddlers touch her guitar.
Josie especially loves the song she calls “Bing Bong” (aka “Subway” — the “bing bong” refrain mimics the two-tone warning sound before the doors close) and “Taxi.” (“I think I lost my pony, and normally that’s bad/Good thing I’m a city kid so I can hail a cab!”) I can’t wait for her to sing, “I’m poopin’ on my potty and I’m feelin’ kinda proud!/I grabbed my knees and gave a squeeze and plop it came right out!” (Did I mention my editor’s out of town?)
I chatted with MFA’s creator, David Weinstone, while he multi-tasked in his Brooklyn home, simultaneously unpacking groceries, settling Ezra, 8, in front of a video, keeping an eye on Roman, 18 months, who was pulling a toy dog on a string, and bouncing Milo, 3 months, who screamed at the top of his lungs for the entire interview. (Just another day in the life of a musician mini-mogul.)
“MFA was born because I was looking for a music program for Ezra in around ’97,” he said. “I felt that the music in the national programs was so unrelated to the environment my kids grew up in. All I wanted was to have a class that primed kids for what was great in their own world, and was not overtly instructional — no tone patterns — and didn’t sound like kids’ music.”
With all that in mind, he started a class with Ezra and some of his playmates, held in the basement of an Alphabet City café. The program caught on, and soon Weinstone hired more teachers, licensed the program and cranked up production of Music for Aardvarks CDs. (He sells them on his Web site, www.musicforaardvarks.com.) Today there are over 500 MFA classes all over the country. Possible TV, DVD, home-release videos and book deals are in the works. But Weinstone still makes and distributes MFA’s records himself. His voice is adenoidal and distinctive, like a male, Jewish Victoria Williams. (Note to older readers: Victoria Williams is the hipster singer-songwriter equivalent of Carol Channing.)
Weinstone, 43, grew up near Philadelphia, the son of artists. He went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but dropped out and moved to New York to play in rock bands. “All four of my grandparents were Russian Jews who lived on the Lower East Side and came through Ellis Island,” he said. “My grandfather on my dad’s side ran a horse-drawn carriage, selling fruit on Rivington Street.” When Weinstone first moved to the city, he lived near his grandfather’s old haunts, on Pitt Street near Delancey, under the Williamsburg Bridge. He waited tables, tended bar and played in Lower East Side dives. When MFA took off, he emulated his ancestors and left the nabe for more family-friendly environs. Today, he and his wife, a therapist specializing in eating disorders, live in gentrifying Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
Josie doesn’t know any of this. She just wants me to sing “Bing Bong” and grin at beautiful Laura and dance in the middle of the circle. To which I say, rock on, baby.
Want more cool kids’ music recommendations? E-mail me: Mamele@forward.com.