Fans of the Boston children’s music scene have probably heard of Northampton’s Mister G, who often brings his high-energy, Latin-inspired family music show to town. Families might even be aware that the performer, whose real name is Ben Gundersheimer, won the 2015 Latin GRAMMY Award for Best Children’s Album for his bilingual Spanish-English album, “Los Animales.”
In December, Mister G’s newest album, “The Mitzvah Bus,” went out to around 20,000 subscribers to PJ Library’s free book and music program. Distributed throughout North America, the CD is a combination of original songs and Mister G classics set to new lyrics. Songs cover holidays like Hanukkah, Passover, Purim and Shabbat, plus Jewish experiences like summer camp and fun wordplay with Yiddish words like tokhes.
Mister G will be performing two shows at the Boston Children’s Museum on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., which are free with museum admission. The shows, which are part of a special “Kid Power Day” at the museum, are sponsored by PJ Library, the JCC of Greater Boston and CJP. Mister G recently spoke to JewishBoston.com about what connects him to kids, music and Judaism.
What did Judaism look like in your family when you were growing up?
My parents are both Jewish, but in quite different ways. My father was born in Germany in 1937. It’s quite a harrowing story of some family members making it out and others not. My grandparents and my father did make it out, barely. I grew up very close to my grandparents, who lived to be 101 and 97. For them, the cultural identity and the religion were very important. My father was raised very observant, but when he went off to college, he kind of went his own way with it. And my mother was raised with a Christmas tree in her house!
What formed your Jewish identity as a child?
I had a bar mitzvah and went to Sunday school, but that was the end of my Jewish upbringing, like it is for many kids. But even though my religious background wasn’t particularly rigorous, Jewish identity was deeply ingrained in me, particularly being so familiar with the story of my father and my grandparents. I identified unequivocally as a Jewish person.
Did Jewish music have a role in your upbringing?
Over the last several years I’ve performed at or attended services at synagogues where music is such a part of the culture of the community. Those experiences really shine a light on the fact that Jewish music was not part of my own upbringing. I think I would have been more captivated as a kid if that had been part of the culture of the community—high-level musicianship, cool rhythms, humor and just a joyous musical aspect. For a kid who was completely mesmerized by music and musicians, particularly in a live setting, I think that would have done a lot for me. So I’m happy now to be able to be part of what seems like a bit of a movement to do that for kids and families.
What inspired you to learn to speak fluent Spanish?
I was sufficiently delusional as a kid to believe I was going to be a Major League Baseball player, so when it was time to pick a language in junior high, I chose Spanish, figuring that would be a practical language to learn because down the road it would be helpful to converse with my future teammates.
What guides you to write songs that will resonate with kids and families?
All I can do is go in my mind to what it was like to be a kid. What would I have wanted to hear, what would I have wanted to experience, just as a normal kid who wants to have a good time? I try to give kids something that’s just for them. Simultaneously, part of the unique challenge of playing for kids and families is trying to give parents something that’s equally compelling for them. That necessitates a certain type of musicality and wit and energy, but it’s nuanced in a different way from what the kids might need.
When did you realize how important music is to kids?
In 2007, after 20 years as a singer-songwriter and bandleader, I did a one-year intensive master’s program at Smith College to become a classroom teacher. I always thought if I wasn’t a musician, I’d be a teacher. During that year, anytime I had any autonomy in the classroom, I’d write songs with the kids. I immediately saw the kids become so much more energized by the process of writing together.
How do you balance learning with pure fun when writing songs for children?
The philosophy I’ve come to have is that kids are going to learn much more if they’re having fun during the process. If you can lead with something that’s rhythmic and catchy and exciting, or compelling in some musical respect—like volume, tempo, rhyme—kids are much more likely to engage with whatever it is. It’s not heavy-handed, but the learning is really effortless when kids are having a great time. They’re uniquely positioned to learn so much so quickly.
What have you noticed about how Jewish families are responding to “The Mitzvah Bus?”
The cliché of “music is the universal language” really is true for me. Speaking in Spanish to Jewish kids in Mexico City, for example, is such a unique and amazing way to bridge cultural gaps and economic divides. The type of appreciation I’ve gotten for “The Mitzvah Bus” from parents and Jewish educators is really touching because the album seems to be enabling them in their Jewish lives. I’m hearing from people—grownups—who are learning a little bit more about Passover or Shabbat from these songs. It’s wonderful to hear from families, “We’re putting on the album getting ready for Shabbat,” or, “We’re having a Hanukkah dance party listening to your songs.” It’s really gratifying that as a subset of kids hearing something that’s just for them, this CD is getting kids to hear something that’s just for Jewish kids. I was happy to create that for them.