Childs Play

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer lead a double life. Some of the time they make music for children and families, other times they play to an adult audience. When the versatile duo -- as adept at rope tricks, yodeling and American Sign Language as they are at being studio musicians, educators and recording producers -- appears this Friday at the Swallow Hill Music Hall, their focus will be on the family.

They're planning a program that borrows profusely from a seventeen-year recording career dotted with Grammy nominations for kids' recordings, but there's another element, too. "What really happens will be based on who's actually there," Fink says. "At our family concerts, the trick is that families try to bring their families. No concert is perfect for a two-year-old, but that doesn't mean parents don't bring their two-year-olds to the concert." Considering that, anything might happen -- including some extraneous, unplanned yodeling from audience members up past their bedtimes.

Not a problem, says Fink. The early-evening concert is part of a trend: "More and more venues are trying to find a way to do more family events, and not at the same time that the soccer games take place. More early-evening family concerts are being scheduled for families who love music, but who have lots of other things going on and need to find a way to fit it all in. And most venues get it off the ground after a couple of goes."

Besides, old pros Fink and Marxer have more than a few tricks in their bag. The important thing, Fink notes, is keeping kids' attention. "We're almost like musical activity leaders," she adds. "Kids don't just watch and clap at the end of a song." To that end, they'll work hard to get everybody involved and singing. And, even better, they'll try to send home a useful lesson in bridging the generation gap. "We like to create a community of people enjoying music together," Fink says. "Some families already sing together, but others didn't realize that it's even something they can do on their own. They not only gain a new repertoire of songs they can sing with their kids, but it also opens up a line of family communication."

Fink and Marxer somehow do manage to keep it light, even when addressing serious issues. On one album, Changing Channels, they deal with ways for families to cooperatively manage the barrage of TV and media violence coming into their homes. One approach they employed to communicate this theme was to include a lot of children on the album, which contains a gentle rap tune, "50 Things That I Can Do Instead of Watch TV," spoken against the rhythms of spoons and percussion instruments. "A group of third graders sang, and they sound great," Fink says. "Kids at home identify with kids on a recording -- it helps them claim it as their own. It's less about adults singing to kids and more about having fun with the music."

It's all part of Fink's and Marxer's willingness to switch gears and experiment. For instance: Fresh off the release of their second lullaby collection, their latest project is a recording alliance with Brave Combo, the modern polka-meisters from Denton, Texas. "It's a huge departure for all of us," Fink admits, noting that the kiddie market is a new one for Brave Combo. "But it combines their infectious good musicianship while appealing to families. This collaboration is going to be special."

It's all about keeping folk traditions alive in modern contexts. -- Froyd