Q: Hello, Melita and Sarita! Are those your real names? Did you plan that?
Sarita: My name is a nickname given to me in Mexico, but used by everyone. To make matters worse, I live in El Cerrito, California. Sarita from El Cerrito! Melita is her given name and means “sweet honey flower”. So fitting for her!
Q: “If I Were a Song…” is your first studio album for this band and you produced it together. What makes it stand apart from the plethora of new kids music out there today?
Melita: "If I Were a Song…" takes a truly folk-inspired angle on kids’ music, in the spirit of other great classic kids’ albums, like "Free To Be You and Me". All of us in the band are teachers, and four out of the five of us are parents, therefore I feel that our music really speaks to kids on their level, and naturally engages their interest.
Sarita: Also, we understand why kids are entertained by all of the pop and rock music produced for them these days, but we are proud to offer an acoustic alternative. We love getting the kids dancing to music inspired by some of our folk heroes.
Q: Who are some of your folk heroes, and who or what inspires you?
Sarita: When I was a little girl, my parents took my sister and I to see many live performances. I grew up watching Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and many other incredible performances for families at wonderful venues, like the Wolf Trap Theater in Virginia. As an adult, having traveled extensively around this incredible planet, I have to say that the diversity of the people, the flora and fauna, and just the miracles of every day life inspire me. That being said, my own daughters have been my biggest inspiration for the songs I have written for children.
Melita: I am also inspired a lot by the natural world – seeds growing into trees, animals and how different and interesting they are, the planets and stars twinkling in the night sky… I have always marveled at the wonders and mysteries of nature, and find that I can easily connect with children on that level. I love weaving this sense of awe into my songs. But I would agree with Sarita, in that my biggest inspiration is my own 5yr old daughter, Leilah Meadow.
Q: You write much of your own material, but you also cover traditional folk songs. Why do both?
Melita: I love to make up songs. It’s like tapping a creative button in your brain where the words just flow and it’s almost like you surprise yourself with what comes through you. But all of us in the band have a love of traditional folk music. Many of us grew up listening to the likes of Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds. There is something so raw about old classic folk songs. “Folk” is really meant to be the music “of the people”. It is meant to be music that is accessible – to the young and the old, and everyone in between. We like to cover traditional folk songs because people are inspired to sing along. It’s like passing down a tradition, and it honors those that came before us.
Q: How did you get interested in playing music for kids?
Sarita: I actually traveled for over a year with my one-year-old daughter. She was born in Mexico, but we spent that year living in a van, moving slowly from Buenos Aires and through all of the northern provinces of Argentina, into Bolivia and eventually Peru. We spent a lot of time connecting with the people who lived in very remote villages in these countries, as Shanti's dad, a photographer, was working on a book.
Consistently, music was the key to creating and developing relationships with people, and because I had my little daughter with me, I was introduced to many of the regional folk songs for children. This gave me a deeper sentimentality about the folk songs that I had grown up with. Back in Mexico, after that journey, I began what ended up becoming a long career of recording, performing, and eventually writing songs for children.
Melita: I have been working with young children in some capacity or another for many years. I was a preschool teacher for a long time, and have always loved being around kids - they are so open to the world, and they are always honest. During this time, I was also writing songs and performing as a singer/songwriter. I finally merged my two passions – kids and music.
Also, after having my daughter almost six years ago, I knew I wanted my work to be something that could include her. She has grown up participating in my music classes and coming to our shows. Now she sometimes even gets up and performs songs with us. It has felt very integrating for my career to incorporate my family.
Q: Both of you spend your days teaching and playing music for kids. Tell me about that.
Sarita: I have created Performing Arts departments from scratch for two Bay Area K-8 schools, teaching Music, Theater and Movement to 5-14 year olds for over 10 years now. Part of my job was alway to direct Musical Theater Productions with the kids. Last year, I created a new Performing Arts Company for Young People called Vaudevillians Stage Troupe. I have over 30 troupe members ages 5-13, and we put on variety shows all over the Bay Area. My teaching approach is "Child\-Based" meaning that the kids have a lot of say into what they perform and how they perform it.
Melita: I teach music classes in a variety of East Bay preschools and Kindergartens, and also hold classes for the general public out of a few well-known Bay Area venues. My classes are engaging and interactive, incorporating movement and dance, puppets and instruments that the kids can play.
Q: When did you first begin to play and sing?
Melita: I had a knack for remembering songs from a very young age - I have tapes of myself at age 2 teaching my parents the songs I was learning at preschool. I started learning to play the piano at age 4,
writing songs at 9 - (albeit pretty silly ones), and taught myself to play guitar at 15. I have now recorded 4 albums of my own, and have performed or recorded with many great artists, such as Bon Singer of Kitka, Shimshai, and Eliyahu Sills of the Qadim Ensemble.
Sarita: I started piano lessons when I was 7. When we would go on family road trips (like from where we lived in Virginia to my grandparent's place in Pennsylvania) my family would sing the entire 5 hour drive. That was how I learned to sing harmonies. It wasn't until I moved to the Bay Area when I was 12 that my uncle gave me my first guitar and I began writing songs. I spent about 4 hours a day singing in choirs during high school; I was a big choir nerd. I still miss singing choral music and I think that is why I love harmonizing in Octopretzel and arranging the vocals of our songs. Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of making music with some pretty incredible folks like Keith Terry, The String Cheese Incident, Femi Kuti,
Q: Your new album “If I Were a Song…” has such wonderful instrumentation and vocal arrangements. Tell me a bit about the talent in your band.
Sarita: Melita and I enjoy arranging vocals, and we both play guitar and some percussion. But a lot of the instrumental genius in our band comes from our band mate, Dave Rosenfeld, well known in the Bay Area for his skills as a Klezmer musician, with his band Kugelplex. He is one of those guys who can just play anything well, and often switches between his fiddle and mandolin mid-song. David Doostan , our male vocalist, also works as an inner-city ER doctor. Luckily we haven’t had to tap into those skills yet at a live show. Jen Miriam Kantor specializes in Middle Eastern percussion and is also Octopretzel’s in-house puppeteer.
Melita: That's right! We use lots of hand-made puppets in our live shows. Children love them; it’s no mystery why Sesame Street is still successful after all these years. Our puppeteer, Jen, is truly masterful at what she does. The characters she creates are so engaging and kids just fixate on them. I heard one little boy say to his mom, after a show, that he wanted to invite Raizel the Camel (one of our long-used puppets) to his birthday party!
Q: Ok, I have to ask, what IS an Octopretzel??
Sarita: You can listen to track 2 on our new CD, “If I Were a Song…” to find out!