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Finding her voice in children's songs

The performer known as Robbi K was enjoying a successful career singing jingles for big-name products, such as Coca-Cola, Lincoln Mercury and GE, and doing backup vocals for equally big-name stars: Mary J. Blige, Chaka Kahn, Aretha Franklin, Jewel, Diana Ross.

"I bleached my hair. I was hip. I was Miss L.A. in New York. I was very, very cool," says Robbi Hall Kumalo, who now lives in Setauket and has substantially changed her tune.

In 2007 she had a new album, "Music Makes Me Happy," for which she composed songs Blige, Franklin or Ross would be unlikely to record: "Eating Some Pizza ... ," "Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!" and "I Love My Teacher."'

"My favorite audience is an audience of children and parents," Kumalo says. She does about 200 performances a year locally and nationally, she says, in schools, parks and other venues.

With her band, Robbi K and Friends, she plays multicultural music that ranges from jazz and Caribbean to Rodgers and Hammerstein. "My music is fun for adults, too," Kumalo says.

She switched musical tracks, she says, after she had her own children -- daughters Mbali and Daliswa, both now of grade-school age.

"I just felt empty. I said, wait a minute -- I didn't think this was what being an artist was like, leaving the children with nannies. Then 9/11 came around," and it became clear to her, she says, that her work with a puppet theater, which she had considered her fall-back job, "was the most rewarding part" of her career.

She also saw some holes in children's entertainment.

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"When they're little kids, you enjoy them enjoying it." But as her children matured, her standards changed, too: "I don't want to see another juggler or another not-very-good magician."

As for music aimed at children older than about 6, she says, there wasn't much -- and most of it came from a bluegrass-folk tradition that is largely male and white. Diversity was lacking.

"Since Ella Jenkins [a much-honored 82-year-old African-American performer], there hasn't been anyone else who has made an impact or stepped up to a national presence," she says. "On the grass-roots level, there are tons of Latino, African-American and Asian performers."

Kumalo is a teaching artist with the Lincoln Center Institute, which works out of the Tilles Center on Long Island, so she believes in grass roots. But she wants more.

Hence, the new recording for children, the third she has produced. She even found a recording studio in Smithtown, "so I could get home in time to meet the bus at 3 p.m." It took her a year and a half to assemble the CD, she says, partly because she had to wait for some guest artists -- such as Irish violinist Eileen Ivers and Sha Na Na singer Jon "Bowzer" Bauman -- to be available.

Kumalo's daughters and other children perform on the enhanced CD (you can see a couple of live performances if you slip the CD into your computer), as does her husband, the Grammy-winning bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose work with Paul Simon includes the 1986 "Graceland" album. (She remembers listening to it repeatedly while she studied at Stony Brook University: "I had no idea that record would have so much to do with my life.")

A major inspiration, she says, is her older sister, who has taught music for 32 years in Brentwood public schools. They and a brother grew up in Bay Shore and Medford, children of a plumber and a nurse who taught them to be "great citizens. ... They took such good care of us. I hope to pass those joyous memories on to my children," says Kumalo. "I hope that's in the music."

A version of this story appeared in Newsday on July 1, 2007.

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