Let’s Talk Tech
Stepping Into Mama Lisa’s World
An Interview With Lisa Yannucci
by Alina Celeste
If you teach music to children and have access to the Internet, you have probably come across Mama Lisa’s World. Overseen by the eponymous founder, Lisa Yannucci, with the help of her husband, Jason Pomerantz, and her friend and fellow folk song lover, Monique Palomares, the site receives contributions from teachers, librarians, grandparents, parents, and folk song enthusiasts from all over the world, and is home to over 4,000 traditional children’s rhymes and songs in over 220 languages. It has become an invaluable and ever-growing resource for traditional and folk music. Lisa and I had a lovely chat one sunny afternoon about her love of music, the importance of sharing musical traditions, and the willingness of people all over the world to help preserve those traditions.
Alina: So how and when did you start Mama Lisa’s World?
Lisa: Well, actually I started it for my son. I’m pretty sure it was in 1997. When he turned three years old, I took photos of the family, and when they came over for his birthday party, I had them all record a message to him. He always loved working with computers, even when he was three. On the computer, I connected each recording to the photo so he could click on the picture and hear their message to him. A couple of people did nursery rhymes. So I thought, “I could make a site of this with nursery rhymes.” So I just started with the most popular nursery rhymes. And that was really the start of it. Then, within six months to a year, I thought, “I studied overseas for a semester in France and I’ve always been interested in international cultures. So why don’t I make it international?” and I started writing to consulates and embassies asking for songs.
Really? Did they write back?
They did! A lot of them did.
Yeah, I know. So I started getting some songs that way. Of course I knew some, like “Frère Jacques” and songs like that. And then slowly, over time, it grew. Also I always had a note on the website asking for people to share their songs and rhymes, because not everybody here has the same version. To me that’s important. I want the version you grew up with also. It’s a living culture; it’s not something that’s just in a book.
Yes, it’s part of the folk tradition.
Right. So you know, over time, I started getting more and more rhymes and countries. And eventually Monique, who I work with now, contacted me. She translated a couple of songs into French and Spanish. She speaks French, Spanish, Italian, and Occitan.
Isn’t that like ancient French?
It’s a Romance language, the language of the Troubadours. It’s still spoken in Spain, little bit of Spain, little bit of Italy. I think mostly southern France. So she started sending me Occitan rhymes and songs, and eventually she just kept sending me so much. So I asked her if she would like to start a French version of the site. And she was enthusiastic, so I work with her now too! A few years after we created the French version of the site, I asked if she would like to create a Spanish version, and she said yes!
So the two of you work remotely?
Yes. She also comes here [New York City] about every year or every other year and we work together and go touring around New York.
You allow advertising on the site. There has been a debate now for a few years about whether to monetize the CMN website. A lot of people are against it, because that’s not what we’re about and it’s about sharing and folk music. But some others feel that ads are everywhere, so it wouldn’t make a big difference and could help us.
Right. I fought it for a long time, but there are expenses in just running a site. We have a lot of traffic so we have to pay a lot more money. Originally we’d have to pay twenty-five dollars a month, but as we get more traffic, it goes up and up.
Of course. So speaking of your site, every couple of years you seem to go through a visual overhaul.
Yes! Well, I’m lucky my husband can do some programming. Basically I started it just doing some HTML coding. But you know, now we have over 220 languages, and a lot of languages have different characters.
It’s really complicated! Over four thousand songs. Jason constantly works on it in his spare time. It’s such a big thing to do, and he works full time elsewhere, so it can take a while for changes.
Did you notice we just changed? We upgraded the look.
Yes! I had noticed. I think it looks great, by the way. When I first started teaching music I did not have a degree in education, so I was really sort of at a loss for songs. I’ve used your site for years, and I’ve seen the change and the growth. Every change you make is an improvement.
Thank you. Our biggest improvement lately is that you can use it on mobile, where it will fit the screen size. That was a big change. We are also adding a feature this week, which is song type. I’m still working on it.
Yes, I’ve noticed. I’m actually on your site right now and I just thought, “Wow. Songs for washing up!”
Yes. We’ll be adding more, but we notice that a lot of people, for some reason, are interested in songs for hand washing and keeping clean and neat.
Well, classroom rituals are a big deal.
We have goodbye songs and then we have farewell songs. Farewell songs are more from other cultures where it’s actually singing a song of farewell.
So you’re really beginning to parse this down. You get really specific.
You know, we always had song types in, but we never had a way to sort it. That’s a difference. Now you can actually access it.
So you started the site, like you said, for your son, but was there anything else that led you to this?
Believe it or not, my degree is actually called Language and Culture.
Oh! So this is a direct progression. Where is your degree from?
And what other languages do you speak? Any languages other than English?
You know, I speak some French but it’s very rusty. I can understand some Spanish. It’s very hard when you’re not there, though.
So you also have recipes and such on here. Is that new? I hadn’t noticed that before.
Right. No, I’ve had that. That’s all from the blog. I write about traditions around the world and include recipes and poetry. The whole thing is really aimed at kids, and I try to keep it kid friendly. But it’s not all for kids. For example, there are wedding songs and things like that that are not really for kids. Some of it is really folk tradition.
I know this is your full-time job at this point, but when you say full time, are you spending forty hours a week on this? Eighty? Twenty?
Probably about forty hours. I take off most of the summer to spend time with my kids.
And when did you monetize? How long ago?
At least ten years ago I would say. It was very difficult to do.
What are the biggest challenges for you as the site grows?
The programming, because my husband has a full time job. That really is hard. It’ll take him at least a year to do every design.
Jason is really dedicated, and it’s wonderful because it’s hard for him. You know what I mean? He believes in it, too, and likes working on the site. He finds it relaxing. Also, recently, I don’t know why but I decided I should try to get a song from every country in the world. That was really difficult.
I already had a lot but I was missing probably seventy-five countries. So I went back to writing to consulates. This time I did not really get that much help! But we did it. We got every country.
Thank you. A few of the countries just have proverbs, but at least it’s something. So that’s a start, because otherwise people from the country wouldn’t even find the site—and we want them to find it. Hopefully they’ll say, “Oh, I’ll contribute a song because they don’t have one.”
I was going to ask you what some of your big successes have been. I would say a song from every country is one of them!
That is one of them.
What about an unexpected success? Something you never could have imagined in the beginning.
Honestly, the whole thing! It’s amazing how much people have helped me. Even with getting these other countries. Some of these countries are little, or not really on the Internet. So I started going to Twitter, everything I could think of, and people really tried to help. It just amazes me how much people have helped. I should also mention that my daughter, her friends, and my niece and nephew have also helped with the site. They’ve taught me schoolyard songs I’ve added, helped with recording songs and rhymes, and done illustrations.
Where do you see the site going as you continue to work on it?
That’s such a good question. I don’t know if you know we have some books and apps.
We hope to put more of that sort of thing out, because I think people want to be able to share it. Sometimes people are interested in, say, the Italy book, because they or their parents were American immigrants or children of immigrants, and it is a piece of their history. It’s something their family left behind, and can be shared—because they grew up with the songs. So we’d like to do more of that: collect and preserve songs people grew up with. Also, physically, we want to get more recordings and keep growing that aspect of the site.
We also have another feature coming soon. We call it, “Song Families.” These are songs on the site that are sung all over the world but have different versions, like “Frère Jacques.” We have probably over fifty versions of “Frère Jacques” on the site. But they’re only connected internally because we’ve been connecting them. Hopefully you will be able to see all those connections and all those versions in the very near future.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share an inside look at Mama Lisa’s World.