“Children’s music” doesn’t have to be simply nursery rhymes or folk songs. As our correspondent Rebecca Kanthor and her husband have discovered, there’s a world of excellent music that strives to pass on positive values to kids. And now they’re trying to bring that music to China.
I still remember the afternoon I walked into my husband’s studio and saw him sitting at his computer, listening to a song through his headphones, with tears in his eyes. Liú Jiàn 刘健 served six years in China’s army and takes pride in keeping his emotions to himself. In our five years together, I’d never seen him cry.
The song he was listening to? A children’s song.
Flash back several years, when our daughter was born. Our lives together before kids had revolved around live shows and music festivals; we’d first met at a bar where my husband, a singer-songwriter, was performing. So when we started a family, it was only natural that we’d want to share our love of music with our kids. But when my husband started searching online for music for children, he was shocked by what he found. Save some cartoon theme songs and a smattering of simplistic tunes recorded using subpar MIDI beats, there were very few new works. The vast majority of children’s songs available were the same tired nursery rhymes Liu Jian had sang as a child. 两只老虎 liǎng zhī lǎohǔ (“two tigers”), 丢手绢 diū shǒujuàn (“drop the handkerchief”), 小兔子乖乖 xiǎo tùzǐ guāiguāi (“good little rabbit”): they were all too familiar. It was as if Chinese children’s music was stuck in a time warp.
As a musician, he was disappointed and confused. Why purposely make poor quality music? Liu Jian couldn’t bear to share songs with our kids that he found musically lacking and lyrically uninspiring. He asked me to do some research and see what was happening in the world of children’s music around the world.
North America and Europe have traditional folk songs for children that have been passed on from generation to generation, but in the past 15 years or so, a new type of music for kids has developed, more suitable for modern families. It’s music that parents actually enjoy listening to with their kids. Any genre is up for grabs: rock, jazz, rap, even heavy metal. I searched for the best bands making music for kids and parents from all over the world and found they have some things in common.
Rather than lowering their standards for kids, these musicians are making the highest quality recordings and live performances possible. Outside of their careers in children’s music, many of them also make music for adults. Most of them are parents or teachers themselves, and their lyrics are especially meaningful to families, with songs that pass on positive values or touch on topics that strike a chord with parents and kids. No more songs about farm animals; these songs are about believing in yourself, respecting difference, and the complicated feelings of growing up. Oh, and also dinosaurs, race cars, hide-and-seek — they know their audience, after all.
When I shared these bands with Liu Jian, he was blown away. He had known that children’s music could be better than the old folk songs our kids were singing, but he hadn’t expected a high-octane rock song topped off with a blistering guitar lick. His reaction was immediate: “We have to bring these bands to China, if only for our own kids to hear.” But there was something more we wanted to achieve. Liu Jian knew if we brought these bands here, perhaps we could inspire musicians in China to make better music for children.
That’s why we started the Hand in Hand International Children’s Music Festival in 2017. Liu Jian handles the production side while I work with the bands. It’s a real labor of love. Both of us maintain our full-time jobs and work on the festival on our nights and weekends, while raising our kids. We now represent 50 bands from around the world and have toured 20 cities. It’s really tough, and we’ve been on the verge of giving up so many times…but Liu Jian is nothing if not persistent. His dream is to bring Hand in Hand to 100 cities in China. I used to think he was crazy, but after seeing the response we get from families here, I believe we can do it.
That afternoon in Liu Jian’s studio when I found him tearing up at a children’s song from The Lucky Band (previously Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band), one of the top bands for kids in the U.S., I realized that something that seemed so simple could have great meaning here in China. The song was about a princess, and one line in particular unexpectedly moved Liu Jian: “In order to be a princess, you must be just and kind, the love that you give is the love that you’ll find.” In a song’s lyrics, he found how to talk to our daughter, who at that time was in full-on princess phase. “I realized I could remind her that she could go beyond just wearing a pretty dress, and start thinking about how to treat others and use her power responsibly,” he says. A simple song helped bridge the generation gap between them and gave Liu Jian a way to pass on his values to our children.
A lyric from the Dutch band Hippe Gasten gave him another lesson to share with our kids. The song “Zonnebril Van Gucci” tells of a teenager whose mom wouldn’t buy him the brand name sunglasses all the cool kids had. “I’m grown up now and can afford them,” the lead singer raps, “but I learned the best sunglasses are the ones that fit you.” A fitting lesson in today’s consumerist culture.
Liu Jian often reminds me that the first time he heard rock music at age 16, the trajectory of his life was forever changed. Hearing Chinese band Tang Dynasty on the radio, Liu Jian realized he too could strike out on his own and follow his dreams. That’s what he did, leaving home and joining the army, and then dropping out, growing his hair long and wandering China as a musician and author. He knows the power of music to change people’s lives and give them the courage to follow their own path. “If kids in China could hear this kind of music at a younger age, imagine what they could do,” he says.
As I write this, we’re in the middle of a seven-city tour through China with The Lucky Band and Hippe Gasten. It is amazing to see our vision turning into reality — at every show, kids rush the stage like Beatlemania while the adults in the crowd rock out as hard as their kids. When we see three generations of families dancing together to music, that’s when we know we’re doing something important in China. We project all the song lyrics translated into Chinese onto a screen behind the bands, and we can see from the parents’ reactions that they too are moved by the values being shared in the words. While we haven’t yet seen a lot of Chinese musicians begin to create original modern works for kids, it’s only a matter of time. When they do, they’ll find a generation of parents and kids waiting for them.
Rebecca Kanthor, along with Liu Jian, founded Hand in Hand, which is currently on tour in China, with upcoming shows in Shanghai (January 1) and Beijing (January 5). Click here or see the poster below for details.