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For Budding Songwriter, Costa Rica Experience Was “Excelente Fabuloso!”

For Budding Songwriter, Costa Rica Experience Was “Excelente Fabuloso!” September 3, 2013
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When he went on the ACM Costa Rica Program in fall 2005, Justin Lansing was just a novice as a banjo player. In fact, he didn’t take his banjo with him on the program, opting to travel with a backpacking guitar, instead.

So it was a nice surprise one day when Manuel Monestel – a prominent Costa Rican singer, composer, recording artist, and ethnomusicologist, and a frequent guest artist with the ACM program – brought a banjo with him to a class.

Justin Lansing and Manuel MonestelJustin Lansing, as a student on the ACM Costa Rica Program, playing the banjo with Manuel Monestel.

Lansing said he’d play it, and Monestel invited him to pick up the instrument and join in.

“We just sat in front of our little group and played a couple of songs,” Lansing recalled. “Nothing too crazy. But for me, it was a great experience.”

In retrospect, it was a noteworthy moment for Lansing’s classmates, too. Who among them, Lansing included, would have guessed they were listening to a future Grammy winner?

This past February, Lansing and Joe Mailander, his partner in the folksy Okee Dokee Brothers duo, won a Grammy for Best Children’s Album of the Year.

The award was for their fourth CD, Can You Canoe?, which celebrates nature, adventure, and a month-long canoe trip the pair took a couple of years ago, paddling down the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to St. Louis.

Okee Dokee BrothersThe Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin Lansing (left) and Joe Mailander.

Lansing and Mailander were childhood friends in Denver, where they shared an enthusiasm for the outdoors. Both headed to the Midwest for college – Lansing to Illinois to go attend Lake Forest College and Mailander to Minnesota – and both majored in Spanish. Among their other recordings as the Okee Dokee Brothers is Excelente Fabuloso!, sung entirely in Spanish.

“My command of the language wouldn’t have been good enough to be able to put that album out” without going on the ACM program, Lansing noted, “Also, the motivation was there because of [my experience in Costa Rica] – those nostalgic feelings when you speak the language and sing the songs.”

As he was growing up, Lansing took guitar lessons. When he was in high school, he was given a banjo as a gift and the new instrument opened up the world of folk and bluegrass music to him.

“That was kind of the turning point when I realized how that type of music works,” he said. “The lyrics and the melodies and the folksiness of the whole thing really appealed to me, so I started writing that type of songs and just went from there.”

Grammy AwardsJoe Mailander (left) and Justin Lansing at the 2013 Grammy Awards.

At Lake Forest, Lansing worked hard to develop his songwriting, especially during an independent study course called Song Writing that he took with music professor Don Meyer. Going on the Costa Rica program gave him some musical opportunities he hadn’t expected.

“What was cool about the program was that you mention your interests, and they help search out things you can do,” he said. “That was what I did. I said I’m a songwriter and I’m interested in whatever music there is that will help me learn Spanish, because that was my main reason for being there.”

The ACM Costa Rica staff got Lansing in touch with a local music production company, which turned out to be his ticket to meeting Costa Rican musicians and going to concerts. One time, Lansing got to watch the afternoon rehearsal of a group that Monestel played with, followed by their performance that evening. “Just having spent the five months in Costa Rica really improved my language and opened up an amazing world for me,” he said.

Along with winning the Grammy in February, this has been an eventful year for Lansing in other ways, including almost non-stop traveling. He kicked off 2013 by going to El Salvador in January to lead a workshop for Mima Music, a New York-based organization that teaches improvisational music to teenagers in the U.S. and around the world.

Lansing is director of development for Mima Music, as well as a teaching artist, and usually leads classes in New York City schools. “It’s about 15 kids per class, and it’s just a big collaborative,” he explained. “Everybody gets together and tries to write a song.” They meet once a week for ten weeks, and complete the project by rehearsing and recording the song they’ve written.

The Okee Dokee Brothers with Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.

In the spring, Lansing also traveled to Nepal and then was off to Virginia for a three-week trek with Mailander on the Appalachian Trail, meeting traditional folk musicians and recording video and writing songs for their next album. Like Can You Canoe?, the hiking adventure will lead to both a CD and a DVD.

The Okee Dokee Brothers have spent the summer on the road performing, and recently were honored when Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton proclaimed August 20 as Okee Dokee Brothers Day in the state.

While the Grammy was in the Children’s Album category, the duo writes songs to entertain parents, as well, since they will also be listening. “We aim a lot of our stuff directly at the parents,” Lansing said. “Maybe it’s over the children’s heads, but sometimes I think kids are able to grasp those things.”

“Our main thing is making sure that the whole family is involved,” said Lansing, in summing up the Okee Dokee philosophy. “It seems to be working.”


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