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  • Writer's pictureSheena at Playsongs

Kevin Graal ~ Playsongs Person no. 4

Knock at the door is a little play rhyme from the Playsongs collection, performed here by Kevin Graal.

Kevin is a storyteller from the tips of his fingers to the centre of his being. His storytelling was born and bred into him by a family, well-known for their skills in the language and music of the living oral tradition of rural Ireland on the County Cavan and County Meath border. Transposed into a city life in England, Kevin's parents carried with them their wealth of story and music. Kevin speaks of a home life in which his mum always had a story to hand and his dad was always ready with a tune.

After a career start in academia, teaching in the Department of Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway College, Kevin swerved by serendipity into his professional life as a storyteller. He was hired in the summer of 1980 by Brixton Library to read stories in community centres during the holidays. Also employed on the project was Helen East, and together they decided not to read the stories, but instead to TELL the stories. The meeting led to the formation of a ground-breaking storytelling group ~ Common Lore. Focusing on educational work, Common Lore was a company of storytellers and musicians from diverse and world-wide cultural traditions, which tapped into the immense power of stories to develop children's language skills as well as their core social and emotional skills. Together they brought storytelling into educational settings right across the UK.

A sampling of the story treasury of Common Lore was captured by Helen in the song-story collection, The Singing Sack, which I had the great good fortune to edit for A&C Black Publishers. Among these song stories from all around the world, was Kevin's Irish tale: Did the rum do da, which takes a traditional diddled melody and reverse engineers it into a story about three young Irish girls offering their ailing dad a nightcap of rum, herbs, honey and hot water to cure his terrible cold. 'Did the rum do, da?' they anxiously ask the next morning. Yes, indeed the rum did do, and dad's cold is better. All together, they turn the question back into the diddling song original, and a happy little dance. And that's how I first heard Kevin's magic with words and melody, and the spontaneity and warmth of his skill with them.

So it was that when I needed a male vocal for an album commissioned by Tumbletots for their Gymbabes programme, I turned to Kevin. That led straight on to working together on Five Little Owls and Five Little Frogs with the whole Playsongs People band. Kevin's sense of the ridiculous and his ability to add a pinch of the unexpected to everything we recorded in those sessions really embedded him in the Playsongs People sound. Kevin's voice is the little dog yapping in One man went to mow, the snoring snail in Two snails sleeping, the wobbling jellyfish slithering off its rock, and the diddling pirate ship crew of Baby, you comin out the bath now? But his is also the fine, male vocal of Hedgehogs, an English adaptation of a French melody, which despite the prickly name, is beautiful and flowing in its shape and lyricism.

Even more haunting is his vocal ~ partly diddled ~ for The Bangor Boat in Five Little Frogs:

When the original Playsongs came out in a new edition, I wanted to add audio of the rhymes. In the first edition of 1987, we had recorded all the songs with Sandra Kerr and Leon Rosselson. The omission of the rhymes, I was glad to put right for the new edition with Kevin performing the vocals to Stephen Chadwick's instrumental backings, and with illustrations created by Rachel Fuller. Gradually, we're making them into little videos ~ hence Knock at the door, where this post started.

Our most recent collaboration has been on Grand Playsongs. I think we managed five days of recording in London and Sheffield, before covid changed the world, and the Grands turned into a slow motion jigsaw puzzle of finding opportunities to put the pieces together in socially distanced spaces. But we did it:

Rich though Kevin's contribution to Playsongs has been, it's but a small part of his storytelling output, which has entranced little children everywhere. To get an idea of the wealth of it, I recommend a visit to Kevin's website ~ there is so much there to delve into and enjoy, plus opportunities to engage in online training led by Kevin.

Storyteller extraordinaire and Playsongs Person no. 4 ~ thank you, Kevin, for your joyous engagement in Playsongs.

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