Kid-Proof Culture

Putumayo's World Playground music series makes cultural difference safe for kids; it's up to our schools to deliver real understanding

There's no school today. Still 70 or so teachers from various public schools in Miami-Dade County show up at the Miami Children's Museum auditorium on a Friday morning for a free music education workshop. "We're going to be traveling around the world today through music," promises Emi Gittleman, director of education for the record label Putumayo and its nonprofit foundation, Putumayo Cross-Cultural Initiative. "I'm your tour guide."

Gittleman's enthusiasm is contagious. The 34-year-old former New York public school teacher is almost breathless as she exhorts her audience to "close your eyes, take a couple deep breaths, and do a 'body scan.'" When the teachers open their eyes, they report a range of feelings from excitement to exhaustion. To get everyone on board, she has the group stand and warm up, rotating shoulders and lifting knees to the Bob Marley classic "Three Little Birds." Some of the teachers sing along with the version sung by the reggae legend's mother, Cedella Booker Marley, included on the 2001 Putumayo World Playground compilation: "Don't worry/About a thing/'Cause every little thing/Is gonna be alright."

But the teachers are worried. Before the workshop began, rumors spread during the bagel and cream cheese breakfast about plans by the Miami-Dade Public School Board and the state Senate Committee on Education to increase physical education requirements in response to recent concerns about overweight kids. In a cash-strapped school system now geared toward teaching the skills necessary for students to pass the FCAT, teachers fear that more time and money spent on P.E. means less for music and the arts. "I really think it's a very serious threat to our high school magnet programs and high school electives," one teacher warns the group before Gittleman takes the floor. ("The arts can't get squeezed out," insists Judy Matz, aide to the school board chairman, in a separate interview. "We consider art and music and physical education as part of the basic education.")

Gittleman felt the time was right for Putumayo to lend a hand. So the PCCI agreed to donate materials and provide a free workshop for Miami-Dade teachers as long as the school system promised to ensure that they would actually use the material in their classrooms. Gittleman believes Putumayo's approach could be particularly effective in a culturally diverse community like Miami-Dade County because, she says, "the arts are a great way to connect with another person, even if you don't speak the same language."

Once the group warms up, Gittleman invites eight volunteers to come to the front of the auditorium and hold signs labeled with names of different countries. She plays songs from World Playground and from the 2003 Latin Playground, asking teachers to guess the origin of each song. The volunteers wave their signs, begging to be selected. Audience members argue over the right answer. Gittleman transforms each suggestion into a possible lesson that might be taught, using the song as an entry point into social studies, math, art, or science.

Every so often, members of the largely Latin, Caribbean, and African-American gathering take issue with the fine points of history. Miami Shores Elementary School special ed instructor Edline Hall objects to the suggestion that slaves were brought to the Americas from Africa. "Slaves were not brought over," she corrects in a light Haitian accent. "Africans were brought over and enslaved here." Elie Regnier, a music teacher at Ojus Elementary on Treasure Island, interrupts Gittleman's quick history of drums brought from Africa to the Caribbean. "They didn't tell the slavers, 'Oh, let me go get my drums,'" he clarifies. "In the Bahamas, they made drums out of rum kegs."

Indeed a close reading of the Latin Playground activity kit, which accompanies some versions of the compilation, can be disorienting. The map at the beginning of the booklet is accurate enough, but the history has been wiped out of the text. Cuba is simply Cuba, "an island known for its beautiful beaches, old buildings, old cars, and most of all, its music!" Puerto Rico is a country that, along with Cuba, the book notes, has been called "two wings of the same bird" -- but doesn't have any relationship to the United States worth mentioning. In fact the United States is not anywhere on this Latin playground, although Texan accordionist Flaco Jimenez, presumably representing Mexico, is included on the CD along with the half-gringa folk singer Lila Downs.

Gittleman admits that the activity kits skimp on history. What little mention there was of the politics behind the music in the World Playground kit dropped out completely in the subsequent Latin Playground; Putumayo found a market among families and switched to a more attractive, reader-friendly design with bigger print and fewer facts. "It had to do with space," she explains, arguing that music transcends circumstance: "In good times and bad, every culture creates music -- often despite terrible challenges. That's what we want to reflect. We want to inspire cultural curiosity."

To be fair, the history of the hemisphere that does not appear in Latin Playground is rarely found anywhere in the curriculum of U.S. K-12 schools. Few are the U.S. high school graduates who know the status of Puerto Rico, the political system in Cuba, or the impact of migration back and forth between the United States and Mexico. It's a bit much to expect a modest-sized ten-year-old indie record label to fill the gap. Many of those who can live right here in Miami.

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