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The ears of a child

Freshly Ground’s sing-a-long tune, Doo Be Do, a favourite of many children, is proof of how a song composed with an adult audience in mind can appeal to younger listeners.

The trick when composing for children, says composer and jazz musician Tina Schouw, is to throw in catchy lines that “pull them in”. She observes that creating music for children is a delicate balancing act — although it involves simplifying the lyrics, one fights against the impulse to “dumb it down”.

She says the instrumentation, too, has to be simplified, although she is quick to add that “simple doesn’t mean terrible”. At times, she says, “not much thought goes into the music” and a lot of the music out there is “inferior and condescending towards children”.

Schouw and poet and storyteller Gcina Mhlope have become key cogs of African Cream Kids (ACK), a label that releases children’s music based on tales and songs from Africa. Mhlope is a significant addition to the music: she brings her poetic fervour and hypnotic storytelling prowess. “I am passionate about my knowledge and heritage,” she says in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. “The stories will be a meeting of different cultures, a meeting of different women, a meeting of mothers,” she says of her forthcoming partnership with renowned singer-songwriter Wendy Oldfield.

Mhlophe says the message behind her stories is “timeless, dealing with themes such as greed, jealousy and love.” She says even though the stories might be told using animal characters, they have moments of recognition and reflection when one will say, “I think I know that person.”

She says her stories are suitable for diverse audiences that range from children to university-goers. “But after 93 I can’t help you,” she jokes.

“Stories are the mothers of all art forms,” Mhlope says. “A good song stays with you, and songs last because there are stories in them.”

Anyone who has spent time with kids will know what a drag it is getting them to sleep. Schouw’s new CD on African Cream is an album of lullabies, titled The Goodnight Songs. Most of the 19 tracks are slow-paced (so as not to work up those hyperactive mites), meditative and simple, with an acoustic feel. It deals with the world of the child: the stars, the moon (what is it made of?) and astral objects such as Halley’s Comet.

The CD has a decidedly jazzy feel, something which Schouw says comes from the influence of her father, whom she describes as a “jazz purist”. She recalls her father lulling her to sleep with jazz strains: “He helped me develop an ear for music,” she says. Now, when she composes songs one of the first people who listens in is her six-year-old son.

“If he is singing along in a week I know I have made it,” she says. Her association with children’s music goes back to the time when her son was born. “I couldn’t find children’s music to play for him. Most of it was simplistic and badly done.”

Two of her songs, Ashes in the Sky and Tsau, are based on Stephen Watson’s poems that draw from !Xam folktales. “We need to know those stories,” she says. Schouw says that it is only by knowing these stories that “we’ll discover the joys of knowing who we are”.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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