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Tunes that Teach

music_BananaSlugStringBandThe Banana Slug String Band Celebrates 25 years
Children’s programming runs from the idiotic to the sublime. But rare is the children’s musical group with a socially conscious vibe—imagine the Wiggles with a soul or Soupy Sales with a vegan pie. For 25 years, Santa Cruz’s aptly named Banana Slug String Band has been entertaining tots around the globe with an eco-message of hope.

On Saturday, Nov. 13 at Kuumbwa Jazz, the ensemble will play two special anniversary shows for children (and their parents) at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The band will be pre-releasing their upcoming CD and showcasing the newest songs from their vast catalogue in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Self-branded with monikers that reflect their love of all things outdoors and under the sea, lead guitarist  “Airy” Larry Graff, bass player Doug “Dirt” Greenfield, songwriter/guitarist “Solar” Steve Van Zandt and mandolin/guitarist “Marine” Mark Nolan all come from a background in nature studies. Together they make music that is deserving of its own animated Saturday morning show.

Doug Dirt graduated from Ohio University with a degree in pre-law and communication and came to California to go to law school. Airy Larry graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in environmentalism, and all four met at the San Mateo Outdoor Education and Exploring New Horizons in 1985. Today, Solar Steve and Marine Mark run the San Mateo outdoor education school where 200 kids come each year to learn about redwood trees, the ocean and environmental education. “They are actually famous curriculum developers, educators and trainers,” Greenfield boasts of his bandmates. “One is a countywide administrator and the other is a principal on site—legit nine-month-a-year jobs.”

Each player’s ability to be comfortable on a stage or trekking down a trail creates the unique feel of a Banana Slug String Band show. “Our message has always been about love for the planet, families and kids,” Greenfield says. “All of our music, our issues, anything we do is about that. Since we all mostly come from an outdoor camp environment, we all have a framework of inclusive interactivity. Singing and dancing allows the message to go deeper. It might be for a couple of thousand people, but it’s a big campfire.”

Besides a common sensibility for nature, each band member brings a unique musical passion to the band: Solar Steve is a folkie guy who loves Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and comes from a strong tradition of singer/songwriting, Marine Mark is an old school rock ’n’ roller, Airy Larry loves the Grateful Dead, and Doug Dirt comes from a soul and funk background. Melded together, Banana Slug String Band is a prism containing the kaleidoscopic colors and sounds of a well-honed rainbow of music that began in Santa Cruz and has been seen around the world.

The band’s international appeal was evident when they were invited to play one of the toughest schools deep in the ghetto of Jamaica in 2002. They did a tour of Flankers, which is a very rough school. Greenfield recalls that “it literally looked like a prison. The principal was like an army sergeant: She was a smaller woman but stern.” The schoolmaster introduced the band to the students with a warning: The children were not to talk, sing or move. Greenfield attempted to intervene: “I tried to tell her we were interactive but she reprimanded us as well and said, ‘If it gets out of hand I will stop the show.’”

music_BananaSlugStringBand2Ultimately, the Banana Slug String Band’s playful spirit prevailed during the middle of their set. “Larry was going off and everyone was having a great time,” the bassist begins. “[The principal] was so moved that she came up to the microphone and did this rap and blew everyone’s mind. Afterward she said, ‘If these people are ever back in Jamaica, we welcome them to tour our school with open arms.’”

Now part of a two-year national program called Ocean Literacy, the Banana Slug String Band was commissioned in 2008 by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, and the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, to produce songs that would help students learn about the world they live in. “We proposed that you cannot have a successful ocean education program without music, and they hired us,” says Graff.

With their newly commissioned CD set for release next year, Only One Ocean, featuring a who’s who of musical prodigies—Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil, George Winston, Zack Gill from ALO, and Tim Garbone from Railroad Earth—the Banana Slug String Band is poised to educate earth children of all nationalities for decades to come.


Banana Slug String Band performs at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Adult tickets are $13/adv., $15/door, child tickets are $8/adv., $10/door. For more info, call 427-2227.
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