Cradlesongs and Tales of Human Resilience
Two recent albums fulfill a desire to build peace and stability between cultures and classes
BOSTON — ONE of these recently released recordings is designed to lull you to sleep, the other to wake you up. But both grass-roots collections, springing from a deep caring for humanity, are bound to strike a chord.
``The World Sings Goodnight'' is a compilation of lullabies from 33 cultures. The songs offer a sense of comfort and peace not only to children, but to adults as well. They range from simple a cappella harmonies to the rhythmic combination of Ethiopian chantlike singing and ntenga drum; from a Swiss child's voice accompanied by goat bells to the more staccato sound of a tune from Nepal.
While many parents may be drawn to ``The World Sings Goodnight'' to increase their child's global awareness, anyone interested in other cultures will find it entertaining and educational. The text that accompanies the CD or cassette does not give a full translation for every song, but key tidbits let the listener in on the origins and meanings.
Many of the selections are variations on the typical theme of lullabies: love for the child and a desire for him or her to sleep peacefully. Still others may surprise listeners (at least those outside of the culture of origin).
They show a range of experiences, from a rabbi teaching children their ABCs (sung in Yiddish), to grief and poverty, as in these lyrics from Bolivia: ``Sawdust to the children of San Juan. They ask for bread but get none.''
A song from Japan is narrated by a nanny who ``is working so hard she is losing weight ... [she] would like to go back to the home of her parents ... but she doesn't have the new clothes which are customary.'' A lullaby from the western United States, written by Badger Clark and Clifton Barnes, was sung to put cows to sleep.
Tom Wasinger, the producer, began collecting songs for the album in the spring of 1991, asking people from other cultures to share lullabies. Native voices are accompanied by indigenous instruments. Mr. Wasinger, who plays several instruments, studied many of the cultures represented in order to play accompaniments himself. Some of the voices are best left solo or are coupled with natural sounds such as the chirping of crickets in the lullaby from Canada.
Sales of ``The World Sings Goodnight'' benefit the human- rights organization Amnesty International.
PERHAPS the voices that have the least guarantee of being heard are those of the dispossessed and homeless.
But in San Diego, Rex Neilson has invested his own money and time to ensure that the ``The Voice of the Homeless'' is heard. While Wasinger was asking for lullabies, Mr. Neilson started his project by ``walking around with a hand-held tape recorder asking `Are you homeless and do you sing?' '' he said in a telephone interview.
Neilson also looked for poets and songwriters. In addition to talking directly to people on the streets, in shelters, and in food lines in various parts of the country, he placed advertisements and fliers around the San Diego area. The ads offered $100 and royalties to anyone who made it through an audition process and onto the album. In conjunction with St. Vincent de Paul (an organization that helps the homeless and needy) Neilson produced a collection of 12 songs, six of which were written by homeless people.
``The Voice of the Homeless'' includes a whole spectrum of musical styles: country, ballads, rap, rock, and R&B. While some DJs initially reacted to the idea with skepticism, ``they've really been amazed'' at the quality of the music, Neilson says.
In the San Diego area, where ``The Voice of the Homeless'' is available in record stores, members of the group have given live performances to promote the collection. Sales directly benefit the singers and songwriters, and the album will also be available for groups such as the Boy Scouts to resell.
The content of the songs is varied as well. This is a natural result of the diversity within the category ``homeless'': The singers, who are identified with photos and mini-biographies, are men and women of various ages and races. Some have children, some are veterans, some used to be addicted to alcohol and drugs.
But the album is also intended to show that homelessness is often a temporary condition with varying degrees of severity.
All the singers have had or still have jobs or are in school: one was even a college professor. As Neilson worked on the project, he realized that ``less than 10 percent of homeless people carry signs,'' and a lot of us are only one or two paychecks away from being in a similar situation, he says.
Not all of the songs are about homelessness. In fact, many of them sound like typical radio fare - reflecting concerns about love or identity, even expressing hope and joy.
Taken together, the songs send the message that homeless people are people first. The album does not preach or lay on guilt. The title track is the most direct appeal to the conscience of the listener: Part of the chorus says ``I'm the voice of the homeless of the world/ Calling out to you/ What are we going to do?''
Neilson is happy with the collection's success, especially because the people who worked on it are not only receiving money but have said that it has positively affected their lives. Some have developed more self-esteem, while others have moved away from drug addiction or abusive relationships. Some of the singers are working with Neilson as he gears up for the second of what he hopes will be an annual collection.
Another source of satisfaction for Neilson is the effect the songs have had on listeners. After performances, he says, people come up and say enthusiastically, ``We just changed our whole opinion of what homeless people are.''