In these politically correct times, it’s sometimes difficult to phrase an adequate critique for fear of sounding somewhat racist. That also holds true in reviewing children’s music, which doesn’t have the backing of major studio money and public relations. Quality is oftentimes weighed against perspiration and years of fundraising and local fandom. Plus I’ve already gone on the record to say that my forte is not exactly world music. So I enter into this review with those caveats.
Hamlet Meneses is a multi-lingual performer who runs the “Be Bilingual Foundation,” whose mission is to provide bilingual music concerts for children and families in underserved communities and encourage diverse communities to come together through music. The new CD, Happy Land Is Tierra Feliz, comes through his Mi Amigo Hamlet persona, with nearly an hour of English/Spanish tunes, from “Dias De La Semana” (days of the week) to “Cara Cabeza” (Spanish body parts).
Hamlet’s story is all about overcoming obstacles—from being raised by his grandmother in Guatemala, being hit by a car at 11, surviving gunfire as a teenage gang member, emigrating to the United States, and breaking his back and needing to relearn how to walk. A more recent battle with cancer has only fortified Hamlet’s desire to bring music to underprivileged families, especially with the overwhelmingly racist political climate in the United States.
Produced by kids uber-producer Dean Jones, Happy Land Is Tierra Feliz is a gentle, genial sing-along of simple-to-understand concepts. Hamlet sees his “Happy Land” as an actual hamlet, or oasis, of diversity and learning. You don’t need to overcome as many obstacles as him to see the virtue in that message.
I had a little harder time with Evan and Vanessa‘s In Our World, There Are No Strangers. Vanessa (from Ecuador) and Evan (from Toronto) met in Louisville, Kentucky and refined their children’s music stylings. Evan’s ability to play more than 20 instruments melds nicely with Vanessa’s strong vocals. The concept behind In Our World delivers the songs in English—then in Spanish (the CD cover even reverses to emphasize the point).
In Our World is a sweet but curiously curated collection of tunes. “Somewhere Out There” will tug at the tear ducts of anyone who remembers the original Linda Rondstat/Aaron Neville version. “Sun Sun Sun” is Dido for the diaper set, with its innocence and head-swaying beat. But “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music is a head-scratcher. It’s a show tune that many people mistake for an English version of a Swiss bedtime song. So you get it here in English—as well as Spanish.
The hidden message behind In Our World is a love of nature, demonstrated with a selection of sounds of nature strewn throughout the tracks. Between those and the dreamy, ethereal arrangements, In Our World is not an album to play if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery. It’s just the thing if you want to lull your children to sleep and give them some subliminal bilingual lessons at the same time.