Educators have used everything from Barney to Big Bird in an effort to make learning fun for kids, but few have had the success of RAS Records. The Silver Spring-based reggae label first stumbled onto the idea of its 1992 release Reggae for Kids when RAS founder and president Gary Himmelfarb (aka Dr. Dread) and his wife, Debbie Manzari, had a child of their own. “We listened to some children’s music after our first son was born,” says Manzari. “But even before that we thought it might be fun to do a kids’ record.”
The disc was a surprise hit and is the label’s best-selling album to date, something Manzari attributes in part to its use as an educational tool. “We’ve had phone calls and had teachers drop us postcards from all over,” she reports. “My husband spoke to a D.C. woman who had used it in a play, and we got a note from a teacher in Florida who is using the album in teaching autistic children. I think it’s something that people can use with kids and not be worried about the content.”
Manzari and her husband are co-producing the follow-up, More Reggae for Kids. “[The first album] got such a great response that we thought people would like to hear more,” she notes. Like the original, it’s a collection of new songs, covers, and appropriately Jamaicanized traditional kids’ songs. Yami Bolo’s “Raindrops (Keep Falling on My Dreads)” is charming, and there’s even a snappy dancehall number by 7-year-old Steven McGregor (“School Done Rule”), whose father Freddie contributes the disc’s most infectious tune, “Big Ship,” along with a cover of Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
Even the album cover is tailored to kids’ tastes. Baltimore artist Mitch Goldberg was inspired by Caribbean artist Frane Lessac, who illustrates many children’s books (such as Nine O’Clock Lullaby) with similar themes.
Like mud, frogs, and avoiding baths, reggae has an undeniable appeal for children. “They respond so well to reggae because it’s got such a nice, simple beat,” Manzari says. “It’s really happy music. Even older people who don’t listen to a lot of world music sometimes go to the Caribbean and fall in love with reggae. It’s got a pretty wide appeal, and the kids are definitely a part of that.”
Manzari, who now has two young reggae fans of her own, is also a volunteer at Woodlin Elementary School in Silver Spring. She has seen firsthand how the disc can foster multiculturalism and promote learning about Jamaican history and music. Encouraged by these signs, Manzari and RAS publicist Teresa Altoz are donating copies of More Reggae for Kids to the D.C. schools’ Library Media Center.
“We really tried to share the Jamaican culture with people,” Manzari testifies. “The spirit of Jamaica’s people really comes through in the musicthat’s what makes reggae so great.” And it beats a fat purple dinosaur any day.Joshua Green