While collaborating with Lois LaFond and the Rockadiles, Denver blues matriarch Hazel Miller asked, "How come I have so much fun with your band?"
In attempting to answer this question, LaFond, a Boulder resident who's celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of her group with the release of its sixth album, Lois LaFond and the Rockadiles, points out that children's artists don't have to play in smoky clubs, and they needn't worry all that much about the opinions of either peers or reviewers. "At the same time, no one's more critical than children," she adds. "but when you're relaxed and having a good time, kids pick up on that."
Grownups are doing so as well. Rockadiles has already earned the coveted seal of approval from Parents' Choice, a nonprofit consumer guide to children's media, and with good reason: The CD is capable of lighting up the hearts and minds of the kindergarten and elementary-school set without causing adults to start looking for their earplugs. As LaFond admits, this is a tough balance to strike. "A lot of what you hear from people gives messages, but the music is too lightweight for me, personally," she says. "On the other hand, a lot of times the music is killer--there are great musicians--but the words are not particularly for kids."
By contrast, the Rockadiles' work combines appropriately clever lyrics about cultural diversity and self-esteem with music made by some of the finest performers in Denver and Boulder --and LaFond never allows her good intentions to soften the brilliance of the playing. On "I'd Go Anywhere," the magical trumpeting of Ron Miles and LaFond's own agile voice travel to the ends of imagination, while "Celebrate Difference!," a song that draws from rock and roll, country and blues, highlights the stylistic flourishes of flamenco guitarist Miguel Espinoza. Just as striking is "Music Makes Me Feel Better," in which pulsing Balinese Anklung shakers accent the exquisite singing of LaFond, Miller and Mollie O'Brien, yet another of the recording's many accomplished guests.
Assisting such entertainers are the faithful core Rockadiles, who are local stars in their own right. Drummer Gordon Kennedy, a LaFond cohort since 1982, plays free improv in Instrument Panel, among other groups; pianist/teacher Rebecca Martin leads her own trio; vocalist/composer Chico Meira, an expert on bass, guitar and cavaquinho, plays with Congueros del Alma; and Mark Harris, a veteran of Monkey Siren, is part of Hamster Theatre and the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, a recent Westword profile subject ("Getting Bolder," December 10). Rockadile alumni such as bassist Carlton Bacon frequently lend their talents to the group as well.
Assembling such a blazing array of blues, jazz, folk, Latin, rock and world-music talent might seem a daunting challenge, but it comes naturally to LaFond. Born in Detroit, she was raised in a tight-knit ethnic family in which her Sicilian and Croatian grandmothers were constant presences. "That must have been the start of why I was so fascinated by other cultures," she says. LaFond's mother harmonized on the radio with Danny Thomas in the Thirties; her father, a sign painter and artist, enjoyed crooning and playing the harmonica. The whole clan turned singing and dancing in the kitchen into an after-dinner ritual that's celebrated on the new disc's "Dishpan Jam."
After graduating from the University of Detroit, LaFond taught high-school English and speech before moving with her husband to Colorado in 1971. Her work at an alternative school here rekindled her personal and professional interest in the theatrical and performing arts, and by the early Eighties, when her two children were in preschool, she'd established a track record in the mainstream music community. But around that time, she began to grow frustrated with the material kids were listening to--and she decided to provide an alternative. "It's not that things were bad," she says of smashes from the period such as Michael Jackson's Thriller. "It's just that it wasn't what I thought I could give to kids." Specifically, she notes, "I started being impassioned about all these wonderful musics from all over the world--Cuban, Brazilian, African. I felt like I wanted to bring some of that to the children's experience." And so, in 1985, LaFond delivered what she calls her "third baby": a Rockadiles cassette called I Am Who I Am.
In order to market her recordings, which encompass styles as varied as doo-wop, polka, rap and gospel, LaFond formed Lois LaFond & Company. Through such efforts, she's accumulated critical acclaim and awards from several children's associations for projects like Turning It Upside Down, an extremely polished CD that's accompanied by a workbook filled with creative lesson plans in subject areas as diverse as art, language, math, science and social studies. But competing with corporations such as Disney has been disheartening on occasion. "There's a whole lot more people there now with me," she says, "and it's a very, very difficult business." She nearly gave up her independence in 1993, but a deal with a major label fell through just eleven days before a scheduled release date. As a result, LaFond concedes, "I have cold feet about working with anything on the corporate level. Your skin has to be like an elephant's to be in this business."
Fortunately, the Rockadiles' discerning fans are capable of rejuvenating their spirits. "The most stunning responses are from the kids with disabilities. That's a thrill," says LaFond, citing as an example a little girl with spina bifida who began to feel good about herself after hearing "I Am Who I Am" ("I may walk with a limp or stutter my words/Makes no difference as long as I'm heard/I am who I am/I am what I am/I am who I am/And I like me"). According to LaFond, "Those are the stories that keep you rolling."
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By the same token, listeners of every persuasion can find something to enjoy in the Rockadiles' music. "Take a song like 'Music Makes Me Feel Better,'" LaFond says. "I think that's a message that anybody can experience. What I consciously try to do is to never change musically what I would do for an adult audience for a child audience."
For LaFond, the groove is the heart of music, and she refuses to tamper with it. To do so would be intolerable for adults and worse than bedtime for kids. "It's amazing. Every child is the same way when they're just old enough to pull themselves up on the furniture. If they hear music, they're just rockin' out. They know that experience of just hearing something that makes them move. And if you put an African or Brazilian tune on, I will guarantee you that a child is going to start moving."
Lois LaFond and the Rockadiles, with Christopher Maier. 2 p.m. Saturday, December 19, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $6.50, 303-444-7095.