Leadership / 08.25.20
Grammy Winner Dan Zanes and Wife, Claudia, Keep Making the Music … in Isolation
To get through this pandemic era, we still look to our entertainers for laughs, smiles and escape. There has been something strangely comforting knowing the talented and famous have been sheltered in place, too. Early on, actor-director John Krasinksi delighted fans with his “Some Good News” YouTube videos. “Frozen” star Josh Gad has thrilled ’80s movies fans with his “Reunited Apart” online series in which he’s brought back together via Zoom the casts of such classic flicks as “The Goonies,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Back to the Future.”
For me, it has been Grammy Award-winning musician Dan Zanes and his wife, Haitian-American jazz vocalist Claudia Eliaza Zanes, and their Social Isolation Song Series on Facebook and YouTube. The Zanes have touched every emotion with their music. Each day for the past 165 days (as of Aug. 24), the couple has come together in their Baltimore home to sing a tune to celebrate the day; to process current, often tragic events; and/or to simply sing out because it’s what they do.
The Zanes have been using their music as a source of good for years. In 2017, for instance, they premiered “Night Train 57: A Sensory Friendly Comic Folk Opera” at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was the first piece commissioned by The Kennedy Center to be created, from the beginning, as an inclusive sensory friendly experience.
I first became aware of Dan Zanes in the 1980s with his group, the Del Fuegos. I loved the mega-popular bands of the time from Tears for Fears and Pet Shop Boys to Hall & Oates, and Huey Lewis and the News. But I spent an inordinate amount of my youth in Tower Records, Harmony Hut and other music stores discovering such treasures as The Alarm, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, The System and, yes, the Del Fuegos. “I Still Want You” remains a personal favorite.
Years pass, and it’s the late 2000s. I’m a dad and watching shows like “Handy Manny,” “Little Einsteins” and “The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on the Disney Channel with my daughter, Madeline. And during commercial breaks, his then-new group Dan Zanes and Friends would be featured in music videos with playful songs like “Malti” and “Catch That Train.” Maddie and I would sing along every time!
So, it has been a delight to again rediscover Dan and his music in this time of crisis. Watching him and Claudia reinvent everything from “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lean on Me” and “Teenager in Love” to coming up with brand-new tunes such as the powerful “For the Long Night” … well … it’s “gotten me through,” as they say.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the Zanes recently. Please like and follow them on YouTube and Facebook, and enjoy our below chat.
Teddy Durgin: OK, so ballpark figure. Between the two of you, how many songs do you know by heart?
Dan Zanes: Hmmm, we know hundreds of songs together, and we’re always writing new ones. We’ve been in so many different situations that we’ve needed to learn a lot in the four years we’ve been jamming. A sea music festival, a Lead Belly tribute, a women’s prison, a men’s shelter, community singalongs, all different age groups in schools, churches, etc. We’re community minded, which means we need a head full of songs to suit the occasions!
Claudia Zanes: We know it’s important to have dozens of songs ready at any given moment. I’d say we have a few hundred kicking around in our heads.
TD: What has been the most rewarding part of the Social Isolation Song Series (SISS) so far?
DZ: We play music together every day! That’s been a huge blessing. The series has also connected us to a group of people we might not have otherwise interacted with during this time. We genuinely appreciate and love our fans. The communal nature of this has been totally rewarding. We think of ourselves as the band in the corner of the yard at a family reunion. Sometimes we play more for the kids, sometimes more for the grandparents, but we try never to leave anyone behind. It’s social music, which means it’s everybody’s music.
CZ: Music is healing. Music unites. Music lifts, and music gets to the heart and emotion of the matter. I’d say my favorite part of the SISS is that we help to create space for people to find a way to stay connected to one another. We need each other more than ever, and music really allows us to do this. It’s cool to see the videos people send us of their family bands. Families are coming together again and bonding over music in a way that I’ve never seen before. I think the series inspires people to go out and make their own music.
TD: What has been the biggest challenge?
DZ: The biggest challenge has been remembering to eat lunch before we go to record! It’s hard to know what songs are going to go quickly and which ones are going to take hours. So, it’s important that we try to avoid losing our minds from hunger part way in.
CZ: My biggest challenge has been navigating through the COVID-19 era as a Black woman. I definitely am aware of how this virus is disproportionately impacting my community. It eats at me a lot of the time, and making music has been a huge therapeutic relief for me.
TD: How much do you two rehearse before you hit the record button?
CZ: Our rehearsal time depends on the song we are working on. If it’s one we know well, it really doesn’t take more than a couple of takes. But then there are times when we sing songs that are new and speak to something happening in the world. When we first learned about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, this naturally shifted our musical plan for the day. It resulted in us learning a new song that could speak to the injustices plaguing our nation. So we rehearsed a little bit. The song we chose for that day was highly emotional, and so we didn’t want to over-rehearse. We allowed for the raw emotion to come through the recording.
DZ: We didn’t get a song in the first take until No. 75! We rehearse as much as we need to. Some songs are part of our usual repertoire, and they don’t take too long. Other songs take hours. Once they go out into the world, we can’t take them back. So we want to represent ourselves in the best possible way.
TD: What has been your favorite Social Isolation Song so far?
CZ: Really, Teddy? Just one song? I don’t think I can list only one. I’d say my Top 5 have been:
“Four Strong Winds,” “No More Auction Block,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Lean On Me.” And “Just a Closer Walk With Thee!”
DZ: I think “Lean on Me” and “Four Strong Winds” are my favorites. But I love all the gospel songs, too. “No More Auction Block” was powerful. Claudia’s singing is really amazing on that one. But, then again, she’s always great.
TD: So, how did you two songbird-lovebirds meet?
DZ: We met through Claudia’s friend, Pauline Jean. She’s also a Haitian-American jazz singer — they went to Berkley together. Pauline and Claudia came over to hang out on Labor Day 2016, and we sang all day … for hours! I knew that day Claudia was the person I’d been looking for my entire life. It took her a couple weeks to come around to my level of interest. But once we decided that we were meant for each other, everything moved quickly. We were engaged about eight months later!
TD: When did you move to Baltimore, and what prompted the move?
CZ: We moved here eight months ago. We felt like we were being pulled to a new city. We love New York, and it will always be home on some level. We were very interested in getting involved on a more community level. And as we did the research, we found ourselves being pulled to Charm City. There are so many great things happening in this city. Folks are organizing, coming together, and working together to build stronger communities while doing what it takes to meet the needs of its residents. This appealed to us.
DZ: We were thinking about leaving Brooklyn and heard that Black folks were doing relatively well in Maryland, so we started looking around. Baltimore wasn’t on the list of places, but we were praying for someplace where we could be useful members of the community. We came to Baltimore for a few days in August of last year, and every interaction we had was positive and uplifting. Beautiful people! We sensed that there was a lot of real community work going on and that we could probably be a part of it. Two months after that first visit, we were moving. And we’re grateful every day that we wake up here.
TD: Dan, my daughter is now 15, and she and I have the most wonderful memories of watching Playhouse Disney and singing along to “Malti,” “Catch That Train,” “Down the Valley,” the list goes on. Thank you so much for giving us those sweet, sweet memories. What did that exposure do for you and your music? And do you have a favorite “Disney memory?”
DZ: I’d say that the Disney years were great ones for me. They played those videos pretty regularly while we developed a pilot for a TV show. While the videos were on the air, the crowds got bigger, and we were recognized on the street regularly. Once they decided not to move forward with the TV show, they stopped running the videos and everything started slowing down. That wasn’t as enjoyable as the ascent! But, in hindsight, it worked out perfectly. I got great exposure with videos that I was able to make on my terms. A show wouldn’t have been that way. The Disney brand has a fairly strict framework, and I don’t think a lot of what’s important to me would have been agreeable. But I’m incredibly grateful for the entire experience!
TD: OK. you two. We will eventually be coming up on Social Isolation Song No. 200. No spoilers. But do you know what it will be?
DZ: Oh, wow. We’d better get thinking about this!
CZ: We haven’t decided yet, but it’s going to be good. That much we know for sure!
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Tags: Music , Live-Streaming , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus