Howling for humanity 

Kids’ eco-friendly Coyote Choir opens for Ani DiFranco

When Bryony Schwan, executive director of The Biomimicry Institute (TBI), told local folk singer Amy Martin about her organization’s goal to educate young people about biomimicry, a light went on in Martin’s head. Biomimicry—a term derived from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate—is a relatively new discipline aimed at solving humanity’s problems by looking at how nature has surmounted similar obstacles. Air-conditioning systems, for instance, can be modeled after termite mounds and self-cleaning surfaces can be based on the structure of the lotus plant. Teaching these creative solutions, Martin reasoned, would require a creative approach.

Within a year, she had assembled a chorus of young Missoulians ages 8–10, recorded a full-length album with them about biomimicry, and accepted an offer on behalf of the choir—who call themselves the Missoula Coyote Choir—to open for political folk singer Ani DiFranco at the Wilma Theatre.

The Coyote Choir’s 15-track album, Ask the Planet, is due out this fall and comprises a collection of upbeat and danceable tunes with a persistent, under-girding message.

“I really hope the album will get more kids, and actually more of all of us, to get outside,” says Martin, “There’s a really big emphasis on Just get out.”

In fact, snippets of the song “Get Out” are sprinkled throughout the album as a reminder. But Ask the Planet differs from typical enviro-tainment in a critical way.

“What’s different about this album is that it’s not just ‘Isn’t nature beautiful, or funny?’” says Sam Stier, TBI’s director of K-12 and non-formal education. “It asks, ‘Isn’t it wise, and isn’t it full of answers for problems we have, and for problems we haven’t even imagined yet?’”

Martin’s trademark positivity is another distinguishing component of the album, says Stier.

“It’s all about solutions and the joy of finding answers in the natural world,” he says. “And it doesn’t dwell on the environmental problems, which we figure young students are going to get along the way whether they like it or not.”

Martin is currently developing curricula that will go along with the CD, and Stier and Martin both say they see the educational aspect of it being used in both formal and non-formal settings. Martin says she envisions the album as something parents can listen to with their kids and get just as much out of the biomimicry concept. “I really hope that if their kid happens to like it and wants to play it 3,000 times a day, that the parents don’t mind,” she says.

Beginning last summer and continuing weekly through this past school year, Martin rehearsed the material with the choir, which currently has 17 members. She was insistent that the kids be an integral part of the group’s evolution, including the name.

“I felt pretty strongly from the beginning that I didn’t want to name it for them,” she says. “I really wanted to get their ideas, which ended up taking way longer than I thought it would.”

Finally, names like the Nature Animals, the Panthers and the Whales lost out to the Missoula Coyote Choir, picked partly for the fact that packs of coyotes often howl together.

“Their creativity is off the charts. They learn music like that,” says Martin, snapping her fingers, “I would just sing them stuff and they would have it so fast. They just open up their hearts and sing.”

From impromptu dance moves to syncopated animal sounds, the Coyotes quickly began adding their own touches to Martin’s material.

As for DiFranco, the link between the “Righteous Babe” (her label) rocker and a kid’s eco-choir isn’t obvious considering her material has generally been focused at more mature audiences. But Schwan says that DiFranco has been key to the success of the album. When Martin opened for Erin McKeown last spring, a backstage conversation lead to drummer Allison Miller—now DiFranco’s drummer—getting involved with the project. From there, “It was all just a big mushball of connections,” says Martin.

Miller recruited fellow DiFranco bassist Todd Sickafoose, as well as Adam Levy, who plays guitar for Norah Jones, and Indigo Girls keyboardist Julie Wolf. For the album’s April 2008 recording sessions at a Blackfoot River ranch, the Coyotes calmly jammed with this menagerie of big-time musicians.

“It’s funny, because I don’t think a lot of them knew who Ani DiFranco was,” says Martin. “But then, when we were recording and we didn’t know we were going to open for her yet, an ad for the Ani show came out on the back of the Independent and they all showed up one morning and they were like, ‘Look, Alli, it’s you! You’re on our newspaper!’”

It’s a big leap from the choir’s local school tours to opening for a touring act. “[The Wilma show] will be really cool, but kind of scary, because there’ll be a ton of people,” said Coyote Choir member Kessa Juda-Nelson. “A bunch of the other people we performed for started crying at some of the songs. I expect that they’ll be pretty excited for Ani DiFranco, and so it might be kind of hard to perform.”

The serendipitous nature of this band of grade-schoolers sharing a stage with an international act reflects a central tenet of biomimicry: a sense of wonder.

“Kids have this amazing curiosity that’s innate, and what the songs do is connect that innate curiosity with a tool to solve challenges of all sorts,” says Stier.

“[Biomimicry] is a whole way of relating to the world that says, ‘It’s okay to not know, and in fact, it’s good if you don’t know,’” says Martin. “The secret of it all is that kids know this stuff already. You get them young enough, and they haven’t been taught yet that ‘it’s not cool to be outside.’ They’re going to broadcast that message up through the culture. There’s this idea that we’re going to teach kids something, but really I think it’s the other way around.”

Amy Martin and the Missoula Coyote Choir open for Ani DiFranco Thursday, July 24, at 8 PM, at the Wilma Theatre. $40/$36 advance.
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