Mommy, crank it up!

How my daughter learned to love world music

How my daughter learned to love world music


We live out in the country where an everyday errand like driving back and forth to the grocery store means more than an hour on the road.

I learned pretty early on in my daughter’s life that the key to vehicular harmony was, of course, music. And while she’s happy singing along with Elmo, Peter Yarrow or Uncle Rock, she goes wild for the upbeat tunes of foreign singers.

My husband and I noticed her penchant for world music right around her first birthday. Before she could walk, she and I would spend a lot of time dancing together; whenever we got bored of books, finger puppets and blocks, I would turn up the stereo, and we’d get our groove on. It offered a nice break from the tedium of the floor and some exercise to boot.

I would play anything that was fast and fun – The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” was a hit, as was Ani DiFranco’s “Little Plastic Castle.” But she seemed drawn to one song in our collection, sung in Spanish by Colombian superstar Juanes.  I’m not even sure how this song became part of our music library.

Maybe it was an iTunes freebie one week? Or perhaps it was downloaded by my husband, who was probably the only teenager in America with a Ladysmith Black Mambazo collection and went on to host a world music hour on college radio.

We bought a handful of Juanes tunes, and they had the same effect. No matter that she could not understand a single word of Spanish (and I can hardly piece together a phrase), she had become a devoted fan. By the time she was 2, she would point to the speakers, yell, “Hit it, Juanes,” and wait for the drum beat. 

Then, and now, she dances around the “stage” (i.e. the living room) until all the Juanes songs are finished. Who can blame her? The Latin-American heart-throb has a smooth, alluring voice, and his music really rocks.  Juanes was no fluke. She soon found another favorite in O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei,” a bit of Romanian Euro-pop that became famous from a YouTube video. It’s also known as the “Numa Numa” song, which makes it hilarious to toddlers.

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My daughter loves to mumble along to this one, waiting for the right beat to utter, “Fericirea” (translation: happiness). From her lips, it sounds a lot like “fettucini.”

Her next infatuation was British songstress Lily Allen. I had heard Allen’s catchy “Smile” once or twice on the radio, so I recognized the melody my daughter was humming one day while we sat in a bookstore café.

Then I heard her sing the chorus of la-la’s, and I just laughed. She has (as yet) little interest in American boy bands or pop princesses, but give it an accent, and she’s fascinated.

Often, on our long road trips, she and her father bicker over the music selection. But we can almost always reach a compromise with some world music. One or two tracks of flamenco-style guitar and castanets will get all of our shoulders moving.

Even when we want to turn down the volume, we all agree on Samite, a Ugandan musician whose unique instrumentation and soothing voice are a balm to our ears. “Sammy,” as my daughter endearingly calls him, is also our go-to guy for background dinner music. In all honesty, she might be predisposed to this one; Samite performed part of a concert my husband took me to when she was six months in utero.

Whether my daughter has an ear for music or languages, how these quirky preferences develop or where they lead is a mystery – will she be a composer? soprano? translator? diplomat? The important thing is that she finds joy in music. And maybe her predilection for global rhythms is a sign of her broad-mindedness, her willingness to sample many cultures, and her urbane taste, even out here in rural America.


Rebecca Rego Barry is a freelance writer and the mother of two daughters. She and her family live in the Catskills.