To date, Putumayo Kids has released thirteen albums of global music, from African Playground to Asian Dreamland, which have sold millions of copies in over a hundred countries. Putumayo World Music, which releases both the children’s albums and those targeted at grown-ups, also puts their money where their music is. They’ve donated $1.1 million to environmental, social, arts and children’s groups.
Putumayo Kids Director Mona Kayhan oversees sales, marketing and product development. Babble talked to her about how they find new artists, how to tell whether a song will make kids go bonkers, and whether they’ll ever run out of continents and countries. – Jennifer V. Hughes
Many of your songs are not from artists who traditionally perform for kids. What makes a “grown-up song” a good candidate for a Putumayo Kids album?
“Harambe” by Rita Marley on Reggae Playground would be a perfect example. This song was not written for kids, but her message is very important and one we felt was essential. “Harambe” means “let’s all come together as one” in Swahili and she then sings, “What color is the rainbow? Check it next time it shows. That’s the way we should be, all together in harmony. We’re sailing in the same boat. We’re rocking up the same stream.” In the liner notes we then explain: “She’s singing about how important it is for us to forget our differences, respect the opinions and beliefs of others and work together for a more peaceful and fair world.” Love it!
You test songs with kids and parents. What have been some of the more memorable reactions?
The song “No More Monkeys” [from Animal Playground]. When that song comes on, it’s like this button is pushed and they’re mosh-pitting and going crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. When the kids don’t like a song. they get distracted or talk amongst themselves or make faces; they say, “It’s ugly!”or “It’s boring!” But it’s generally their physical reaction we pay attention to.
Multicultural music is touted as a way to broaden kids’ horizons by exposing them to different cultures. Can you give me an example of how you’ve seen that in action?
I was in a school in New Orleans where a teacher was doing a World Playground Activity Kit [a guide for teachers] with her class. She was explaining this song from Israel about how people have been exiled from their land, their home, and then she asked, “Have you guys ever experienced that?” Because this was New Orleans, everyone was nodding. It was really poignant to see the teacher explain how other cultures have experienced the same thing, and have the kids tie it to their own experiences.
Tell me a story about how you found one of the songs.
We have this database of CDs where we have thousands of songs to choose from, plus then we go out and see shows and interview artists. Animal Playground was so difficult – we not only had to find world animal songs, we then have to make sure we’re not missing anything. Like at one point we realized, “Oh – we have nothing from Africa.” For that album, someone just happened to see the Wee Hairy Beasties in concert and then she realized they had an entire album on animals. It was one of the last songs we chose and we literally ran out to the store and bought the album and listened to it as a group. We found our perfect opening song.
Another one was on Caribbean Playground. We were adding some fresh songs and I had this stack of burned CDs that had been submitted and I just put one in. It just had the person’s name on it. We found the perfect Caribbean song. But we couldn’t even locate her to ask her to license the song; we had a phone number but it didn’t work. It was like this race, this hunt to find her.
You’ve covered much of the globe – what’s next? What will you do when you run out of countries?
We can always do regional music – we just released Hawaiian Playground and then African Dreamland comes out in March. After that is one of the most interesting albums we’ve done – it’s our first collaboration with Sesame Street – we’re calling it Sesame Street Playground, and it has all their songs from all around the world. For example, you’ve got the “Rubber Ducky” song in Chinese or the opening song in Dutch. It’s so cool.