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Grenadilla: Kwela is for kids (and grownups, too!)by Peter Aaron

The word kwela is a derivation of khwela, a Zulu and Xhosa word meaning “come on,” a term used by South African musicians to motivate fellow players and audiences during a performance. Kwela is also the name for the South Africa’s deliriously upbeat folk music—which just might be the happiest-sounding music on the planet. Filled with chirping pennywhistles, unison singing, and a distinctively buoyant shuffling rhythm, kwela evolved during the 1940s and ’50s out of the earlier, jazz-influenced urban “township” style known as marabi. And, believe it or not there’s a group making this very same infectious and supremely happy sound right here in the Hudson Valley: Grenadilla, a multi-voiced family music ensemble led by singer and music teacher Debbie Lan.

“Where I grew up kwela is the music of the streets, so it was always around,” says Lan, who was born and raised in Cape Town. “It’s fun music that anyone can play, no matter what their age or ability might be. So it’s very much a family-friendly music.”

Lan founded Grenadilla (South African for passion fruit) in January of last year and the group has quickly become one of the brightest new names on the “kindie” music scene. Last spring the band released its self-titled debut album, which recently hit number 13 on Sirius XM satellite radio’s “Kids Place Live” chart. Among the disc’s 15 euphoric singalong tracks are such sunny, positive-messaged songs as “Peace Will Come,” “Be Yourself,” and “Arabella Angelique,” not to mention an uplifting version of the Zulu traditional “Babethandeza” (“Grandmother”). The group also contributed a cut to the recent compilation Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti (Spare the Rock Records), a benefit album for Haitian earthquake victims that also stars Pete Seeger, Dan Zanes, They Might Be Giants, and many other heavy family music friends.

For live appearances the group tailors its lineup to the suit the occasion and the availability of its members, but for the sessions for Grenadilla (Independent) the ranks include Lan on lead vocal, piano, and pennywhistle; singers Annmarie Callan, Brittany Sacash, and Natasha Williams; singers/pennywhistlers Leah Glennon and Jodi Palinkas; guitarist and bassist Ken McGloin, who also heads Poughkeepsie Day School’s adjunct music department; and journeyman drummer Dean Sharp, who has played with everyone from Moby to Marc Ribot to Jane Siberry. (Drummers T Xiques and Chris Cullo have also appeared with Grenadilla; Lan’s husband, Bryan Gunn, is the band’s live sound engineer.)

“What I love most about playing with Grenadilla is the lushness of the vocals,” says Sharp. “It’s interesting for me because we try to keep the music as authentic as possible, which I really appreciate because for years I’ve loved juju and a lot of other African music.”

Lan studied music, released an album, and even had some pop hits in her native country before immigrating to Nashville in 1987, where she did the requisite songwriter’s stint on the Music City scene. In the early ’90s she moved to the Hudson Valley, where she’s since worked as a backup vocalist for Robbie Dupree, Livingston Taylor, and Artie Traum, and currently teaches music at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge. Lan also sings with Callan, Sacash, Williams, Glennon, and Palinkas in the 20-strong (and growing) adult voice ensemble Bloom, and oversees the youth voice group Blossom.

In addition to performing at local school and community functions and gatherings like the Rosendale Street and Clearwater festivals, Grenadilla has lately been making its spirited, multi-voiced presence known well beyond the group’s home turf. Besides performing on Sirius XM’s “Kids Place Live” and attending Brooklyn’s KindieFest music conference, the band has drawn raves from leading kids music website MinivanBlues.com and—perhaps best of all—from parents and teachers around the country.

“This music is all about community spirit,” says Lan. “People can be self-conscious about trying to make music, worry about whether or not they’re tone deaf and think that they have to be trained ‘musicians’ just to play for fun. But that’s not true. [Grenadilla’s members] want to encourage all people to make music a part of their daily lives. We want them to see that through music they can be part of something much larger.”

Grenadilla will perform with Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell, Rani Arbo, Daisy Mayhem, and others at a release party for Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti at the Pines Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts, on September 26. www.grenadillasings.com.



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