In her career, Robbi K has performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart and Mary J. Blige, just to name a few. She's also performed on big-time TV shows like Oprah and David Letterman. She has quite an impressive resume, and with her amazing vocal talent and engaging personality and sense of humor, she could really do anything at all in the entertainment world. But Robbi was inspired by a children's theatre production in 1981 to make children the main focus of her musical talent, and the children of the world are very blessed for that choice of hers.
Robbi's latest album, her second CD for kids, is called Music Makes Me Happy, and it's an outstanding collection of songs for kids, covering a wide variety of styles including world, jazz, blues and gospel. Robbi sites Paul Simon's Graceland as a seminal album and influence for her. I would say exactly the same thing about Graceland's influence on me, and so it's interesting to me how different people can be influenced in very different ways by the same work of art. This is not to say that Robbi's music (or mine) sounds much at all like Graceland, but the idea of exploring and trying to be unique and creative with a variety of musical approaches is certainly prevalent throughout Music Makes Me Happy, and in that sense, I can definitely recognize that influence.
The CD begins with a fun percussion song as Robbi and a small group of kids "Feel Da Beat". "Summer's Here" is next and is a catchy calypso style song in the vein of "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid. "Eating Some Pizza" shows off some great kid singers describing what makes them shout "Hallelujah!", and I particularly love how the background singers sing the "hallelujah" phrase. This is a really cool track and my only complaint is that the kids singing are mixed a little too low to understand throughout. The kids they got to perform on this album are right on with their pitch and timing and the production showcases them well throughout the rest of the album, but I wish I could have heard them a little better on this track.
Robbi's take on "The Legend of John Henry" has an upbeat Motown feel, very reminiscent of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone". Next up is "Music is My Friend", which is probably the only track I didn't really enjoy on this album. I think that people make too much fun of the music from the 1970's, when there was actually quite a lot of great music happening then, but this reminds me of the kind of 70's songs that didn't endure very well. Musically, it's kind of catchy, so that's not the major issue, but lyrically it seems to include some forced and rather odd phrases, such as, "It can take down up. Fill an empty cup. Fill it with magic stuff." and "Music brings a charge, makes the small seem large. Rides you on a barge." Rides you on a barge?? A very strange choice for a lyric... Robbi didn't write this song, so I'm not going to hold it against her, but regardless, those kind of lyrics combined with the lite jazz pop of the music make the song a little difficult for me to warm up to. I like that this is yet another style that she is experimenting with, and I like the general message that music can be very uplifting to your spirit, but it just doesn't seem to measure up with the strength of the rest of the album for me. But to say that this is the only song I don't really care for is in itself quite a recommendation for this CD, as even some of my favorite albums have two or three tracks that I'm not all that crazy about.
"Favourite Things" is a swing jazz version of the song from The Sound of Music, and Robbi shows off some nice phrasing, for example, pausing in just the right way to make a line like "schnitzel with noodles" sound cool instead of hokey. The band is sizzling hot on this one, and the musical performances and Robbi's arrangements throughout the CD are terrific. My favorite tune, the "Got Me Laughing Blues", definitely got me laughing with some brutally honest examples of things that make Robbi laugh, including her brother's little butt and passing gas. "Music Makes Me Happy" is an upbeat and joyous blues number (yes, blues can be that way!) and features several different people joining in to celebrate, including children's music artist Brady Rymer and blues legend Guy Davis.
"Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!" begins with a Barney impersonation that seems to imply that the song will be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but you could certainly take it at face value to be a musical depiction of the seesaw mood swings of a kids' life. I like the contrast between the happy and mad sections, and how they change into each other. The feel of the happy part reminds me of Vince Guaraldi playing piano for a polka band, and then the mad part has shades of things like Fiddler on the Roof and even Frank Zappa. It's an unusual combination, but somehow it works well and is a fun diversion.
"I Love My Teacher" (see the video below) has a chorus of kids (including Robbi's daughters DiDi and Mbali) singing in an old doo-wop style (with Bowzer from Sha Na Na appropriately guesting), doing a fitting tribute to teachers everywhere. I can remember idealizing a few of my teachers growing up, and I think this song speaks well to that kind of kids' perspective. A lot of kids, especially elementary aged kids, really do think of teachers as being in a different realm entirely, which is why it was always so weird when you happened to see your teacher at the supermarket. I'd think... What is Mr. Edholm doing here? I thought he lived at the school and studied science books all night?! And lines like "I'm so glad that I'm her child" made me realize that the kids could also be singing this to their parent or parents, who are certainly the most important of all the teachers in their lives (a relationship which is completely reciprocal, since kids teach us so much).
The final track is a beautiful medley called "The Peace Song", which is gloriously arranged with angelic voices and lush strings, as the Latin words for "Give us peace" are interspersed with references to classic gospel songs like "Amazing Grace", "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands". Robbi's voice has such versatility throughout the album, strongly belting out jazz and blues and also showing much beauty and restraint on a track like this. All told, Music Makes Me Happy more than proves its title, providing an enlightening and entertaining experience through the joy and power of music.
I should mention that Music Makes Me Happy was co-produced by Robbi and her husband, Bakithi Kumalo (who also plays bass on the album and who has played bass for many years with Paul Simon. You know that famous bass solo on "You Can Call Me Al"? That was Bakithi.). The arrangements and instrumental performances are varied, colorful and altogether quite enjoyable, without ever getting in the way of Robbi's vocals, and the overall production is top-notch. There's no doubt that Bakithi and Robbi make a really great team. (A husband and wife producing children's music together... Hey, how about that?!)
Robbi K website