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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Gentle Messages for Small Folks

October 18, 2000|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a time when much of the entertainment world is under siege for targeting inappropriate content to youth, contemporary folk singer-songwriter Anne Hills is humming a different tune.

"Never Grow Up" (Flying Fish Records), her children's recording duet with singer-songwriter Cindy Mangsen, won a 1998 Parents' Choice Award for its high, universal human values.

The previous year, Hills, who performs in Anaheim on Saturday, produced "Part of the Village," the second in a series of benefit recordings (1995's "That Kind of Grace" being the first) for the Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago.

The center, named on behalf of the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., Baptist church bombing, provides families with counseling services, before- and after-school care, and Head Start programs.

In addition, three years ago Hills wrote her first children's book, "Dreamcatcher," an adaptation of her popular song about the hopes and dreams of children.

Still, don't expect Hills--herself the mother of an 11-year-old girl--to bash those exposing us to the current plethora of inflammatory soundscapes and imagery.

"I think the violence, particularly in music like rap, is a reflection of performers who've grown up in an impoverished situation and maybe weren't given the tools to get out of it," said Hills by phone from her home in Bethlehem, Pa.

"Some people are threatened by it because they don't want it in their face. In this country, we don't want to believe that that sort of poverty exists--or that there aren't enough parachutes available for people in those circumstances. It shows our failings as a society, and that's something we still need to work on."

Hills, who will perform solo at the Downtown Community Center in Anaheim, says she sympathizes with those who vent in angry, sometimes even violent, ways. But she has chosen a far different path of self-expression.

"I believe in the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi, where pacifism is a much longer road to a goal, but one where you don't lose your humanity in the process," says Hills, who was born in India.

"I'm also inspired by the last book by the Dalai Lama, 'The Art of Happiness,' which asserts that we need to teach compassion through meditating on another person's situation."

Believing in tolerance and unity came naturally to Hills while growing up in southwestern Michigan. She was greatly influenced by three family members: her grandfather, a Methodist minister who immigrated to the U.S. from England; her father, who before becoming a physician wrote his doctoral thesis on "The Effect on Industrialization on a Caste System of India," and her mother, an elementary school teacher and civil rights activist.

"It all feeds into who I am and what I do," Hills said. "From an early age, I heard political discussions in my family all the time. The town I lived in . . . was grappling with racism and prejudice."

Through her music and words, Hills seeks to lead her fans on new journeys of self-awareness.

"What I remember as a child is music that told a good story or painted a really vivid picture in my mind," she said. "It didn't matter if some of the words were beyond me--if anything, they just sounded more intriguing. So when I'm writing songs, I try to hold on to some innocence, but without talking down to the kids. You want to expand their world, not make it narrower."

Of course, not everything in Hills' repertoire is kids' stuff. In her latest solo release alone, 1998's "Bittersweet Street" (Redwing Music), she tackles subject matter that includes the Civil War, alcoholism and refugees.

"I like to focus on songs of conflict and resolution, ones that celebrate our similarities as well as our differences," said Hills, who is earning a degree in psychology.

"For instance, what I discovered when I wrote the song 'Exile' is that it's not just about Tibetan monks, but that it was about all people who have no home. So I'm really putting the listener in kind of a painful place, where I'm forcing them to see from different points of view, like a soldier's or immigrant's."

"I think that's why I chose folk music over classical or jazz," she adds. "It deals with so many varied subjects about humanity and the lyric is as important as the melody.

"David Roth has this song called 'Nine Gold Medals,' which is about a Special Olympics race. Nine guys are running, and when one of them falls, the other eight turn back to help. So when they cross the finish line, they all get gold medals.

"Perhaps it's a simple-minded tale, but I just see that song as humanity at its very best, and it's an example of what we as songwriters are striving to do. Despite all of society's inherent flaws and failures, I'm a humanist who feels we are becoming better as people."

SHOW TIME

Anne Hills performs Saturday at the Downtown Community Center, 250 E. Center St., Anaheim. Brian Joseph opens at 7:30 p.m. $10, under 18 free with adult. (949) 646-1964. Presented by the Living Tradition.

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