On my first trip to Cambodia, in 2007, visiting long term Phnom Penh residents (my mother, sister, brother-in-law and my two year old niece) one of the places we stopped at was a restaurant on St 360, then called Le Jardin, which was one of the few really child-friendly western style establishments in the city. Over 11 years later, despite many changes of ownership and now a change of name, Farm to Table remains a favourite location for expat families with young children. Many a time they’ve been the outstanding audience and dancers for my performances there.
Marianna Hensley, well known for singing both Americana/folk/country on one hand and jazz standards on the other, has initiated a new project, Mimi & the Merrymakers, dedicated to providing children’s entertainment across the city.
“I was doing a jazz gig, and after I finished my second song there was a little three year old who grabbed the flowers out of the bottle on his table and sort of waddled up and presented them to me – so the show is over, it’s not going to get any better than that. There were so many little things that came together in the birthing of the concept, but at its heart is a love of music and a love of children and my own childhood love of music,” Marianna recalls.
For so many of us, childhood and music are deeply fused together.
Adds Marianna: “I was five years old the first time I ever sang a solo, and it was in church. ‘Away in a Manger’, if I remember correctly. But all I really remember of that particular performance is that I forgot the words, and was mortified, and somehow my mother helped me through it.”
Marianna talks about handing down the songs and passing on the oral tradition.
“My mother helped me through many things in terms of music, and she taught me songs from her childhood, and a lot of songs that we would sing in rounds, or two songs that were complementary and could be sung one on top of the other, and I remember always loving those, and pestering her as we’d be driving in the car, ‘let’s sing Nelly and Maggie, let’s do Tender Shepherd, I want to take the high part’.”
A Merrymakers show will be approximately one hour, split up into three mini-sets.
Marianna elaborates, “The first part of the show we’ll be doing folk songs and silly songs, think Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, and Row Your Boat, things like that. The second part of the show I think might be my favourite, it’s the Discovery part of the night, and for our first show will be focusing on a lot of songs that come out of the African tradition – we will go on a journey of discovery. And then the last part of the show is just party time: soul songs, big motion songs, sing-a-longs.”
The Merrymakers behind Mimi are well recognised faces in Phnom Penh music scene – the relatively newly arrived Greg Beshers and Ernie Buck along with myself – all dedicated to a sense that having a fun and silly time is seriously important, and to the sharing of our love of song, passing the traditions on.
“One of the questions I put to my bandmates was: what was a formative song from your childhood that you would want to share with children? And it’s a question I would ask parents as well,” Marianna points out.
“As the Merrymakers evolve I don’t envision us as having one fixed set that we just do over and over and over again, but that it’s very dynamic and we bring in different songs and different genres, especially into the Discovery portion of the show. Think back to childhood, and what are the songs that, for whatever reason, captured you, and you’d like to share?
“The Merrymakers is a band I never dreamed of, but I am delighted with. If the children go away from the evening thinking that was fun, I’m going to do that again, we will have had a successful gig.”
Mimi & the Merrymakers will debut at Farm to Table at 6 pm on Friday 22nd February, with Ernie Buck solo to follow and the Hills&Bells duo to wind up the evening.