Getting Goofy: New Takes on Holiday Tunes
It’s hard to keep a straight face when writing about a man who calls himself Danna Banana. And judging from the cover of his new CD, “Bananukah!” — on which the singer/songwriter (aka Dan Cohen) is pictured with a plastic Viking helmet, an armful of maracas, a foam-topped sledgehammer and a spatula — straight faces are not the goal of this holiday album for kids.
The album consists mostly of such familiar Hanukkah tunes as “Mi Yimalel” and “The Hanukah Song,” in new, goofy arrangements. The last of the 11 tracks is a medley of “Dreydl,” “S’vivon” and “Hanukah O Hanukah,” in which Cohen sings, “I have a lovely dreydl/I made it out of glass/and when it gets all tired/I move to the next song.” Other songs use clever rhymes and almost-swear words to keep kids’ attention. On the title track, Cohen rhymes Judea with “praya” (that is, prayer) “maya” (mayor) and, the best, “soothsaya” (you get the idea). He sings, “The people all rejoiced and wept and went home feeling better, even happy” (this state of affairs resulted from the soothsayer’s advice to eat bananas). “Though perhaps it’s because all of them were just so sick and tired of feeling crappy/And after saying so much sooth, the wise soothsayer went right home and took a nappy.”
“Bananukah!” was conceived as a live musical performance, and Cohen, whose previous two albums are called “Daddy-O!” and “Bananappeal,” is doing a small tour of the show throughout December at venues in New York’s Mamaroneck, Tarrytown and Scarsdale, and in Montclair, N.J. (visit www.dannabanana.com for specific concert information). Though the bouncy, frenetic silliness is likely to appeal to kids (but might wear thin on grownups after a short while), adults who are paying attention will notice that Cohen did not skimp on the music itself. He has a lovely baritone voice — he was trained as an opera singer — and the guitar, piano and klezmer-style clarinet are played with skill and style.
Interspersed throughout the album are reports from BNN: The Banana News Network. These allow Cohen to tell the story of Hanukkah without giving young listeners the impression that they’re being taught a lesson. “This is Ethan for BNN,” deadpans a lisping kid over the clacking of a typewriter at the end of track five leading into track six. “The Maccabees are cleaning the Temple. They’ve only found a tiny jug with just enough oil for a single day. This could be serious. We’ll keep you updated.”
Most of the arrangements contain both Hebrew and English lyrics, which allows kids with varying amounts of Hebrew schooling to sing along. In fact, children do sing along; almost all the songs feature kid vocalists in a giggling chorus, which makes the CD feel like one big playdate to which everyone’s invited.
Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is working toward an MFA in creative writing at the New School.