Current Issue / DU Alumni

Hunkta Bunkta Boo

Alumna Katherine Dines is serious about making silly songs for kids. Photo: Michael Richmond

On Sundays after church, a 5-year-old Katherine Dines and her whole family — mom, dad, brother and sister, 11 cousins, three aunts, three uncles and five pet dogs — would gather at Granny’s house.

“Kick-ta-bill-icky-all-uh-guh-locks-ta-hunk-ta-bunk-ta-boo … yoooo hooo!” Dines recalls Granny hollering from the porch, calling the kids in for supper with a cry that her great grandmother had once used to call hogs.

“We had so much fun together and made such a ruckus that there was only one way to get our attention,” recalls Dines, BA social sciences ’74, who has made the latter part of the call — Hunk-Ta-Bunk-Ta — the trademark name of her award-winning children’s music.

Now 53, the Grammy-nominated songwriter still loves to play, and that passion for merrymaking is transferred to her music. But, there’s usually a thoughtful, educational message tucked in amongst the playful lyrics.

“I think that learning through the arts is really the only way that young children learn because the arts are play and expressive and creative, and we don’t have much room in our lives for that anymore,” says Dines, noting that research shows that melodies and rhythmic phrases may be stored forever in the limbic region of our brains.

“We’ve gotten away from the basics of playing with our children, talking with our children, dancing with our children and singing with our children,” continues Dines, who tours internationally as a performer, recording and teaching artist, and keynote speaker. “People tend to write songs that they think children would like to hear. They preach to them. They are sort of telling children what they want them to do or to be. My work has a back-door approach. It’s all very easy and accessible for children, and there is a message in it that’s not preachy.”

Dines’ nine albums combine humor, education and international culture in songs ranging from raps like “Let’s PPPPP — Punctuate!” to a chant about making “Mashed Potatoes.” Other songs like “Ticklebug” and “Dad on Diaper Duty” encourage parents to interact with their infants and toddlers through hand motions and dance.

Dines, who wasn’t able to have children of her own, draws inspiration from her nieces and nephews and the children of her friends. “Children have always been in my life,” she says. “I have a knack for loving children and understanding how their minds work.”

“A lot of her songs allow kids to express their feelings, like her song about going to bed with monsters in the closet,” says percussionist Ed Contreras, who performs with Dines in large concerts. “Kids are able to relate to what she’s saying, which is the mark of any good songwriter. Whether it’s adults or kids, it’s performing songs that the audience can relate to and hopefully sing along with.”

Dines wasn’t always on a musical path. After graduating from DU she worked at Denver’s natural history museum, starting out as a volunteer and working her way up to a position as an assistant art director. “The career switch happened because I’d always had the burning desire to write songs, and I knew if I really wanted to write songs I should go to Nashville,” she recalls.

There, Dines was writing and publishing country and pop songs when a publisher asked her to write tunes for a lullaby album — A Child’s Gift of Lullabyes, which was a Grammy finalist for best children’s recording. Another publisher then asked her to write more children’s songs.

“I thought, ‘What I am I going to write about?'” Dines recalls. “I remember thinking that children like nonsensical words. Then, my grandmother’s hunk-ta-bunka-ta call came back to me, and that became my first song.”

Dines admits that her first two albums — Hunk-Ta-Bunk-TaBoo and Hunk-Ta-Bunk-Ta-Boo 2 — weren’t really written with an educational message in mind. In fact, it wasn’t until teachers began telling her about how they applied the songs in class that Dines began to focus her albums and purposefully insert educational messages into her lyrics.

Dines began touring, performing 50-200 concerts a year at schools, libraries, birthday parties, fairs, festivals, camps, churches and senior citizen centers throughout the United States. She also began racking up accolades, including an award from the Parent’s Guide to Media.

She moved back to Denver in 2000 to be closer to her family. It was then that she met her husband, David Miller, JD ’77, who is an adjunct professor at DU’s Sturm College of Law.

Growing up in a musical family, Dines learned to play the piano at age 2. On long car trips, her parents taught barbershop harmonies to Dines and her siblings. Her father played the four-string banjo and harmonica in a jazz band, and every morning, he would put on a record of Tennessee Ernie Ford hymns. Dines’ parents even dabbled in songwriting, taking familiar melodies and writing new words.

Oddly enough, Dines — who plays the five-string banjo, guitar and harmonica — doesn’t consider herself a musician “because I don’t play them very well. I live and breathe the song-writing part — not the instruments or the singing.

“For many years I thought I couldn’t even sing,” she continues. “But if you can talk, you can sing. It’s just that we think we have to have these voices like Mariah Carey. We all can sing.”

Her album Hunk-Ta-Bunk-Ta Chants reinforces this idea, encouraging parents and teachers who claim they can’t sing to begin speaking rhythmically, which Dines says will lead to singing.

“The one-on-one time that you spend with your child is the most important thing you can do as a parent, and if you can incorporate music or the rhythm of words with that time, you will help set the stage for continued growth throughout the child’s life,” Dines explains.

“I’ve found that other children’s music is usually very simple. Katherine’s seems to be complex, written with more melody, and chord structures that you usually don’t associate with kids music,” says Contreras, who performs about four times a year with Dines, including a tour of military bases in the Pacific North Rim last year. “She recognizes that kids can like everything from very complex jazz to classical music.”

Dines has two albums coming down the pike in 2006 and says she has no plans of changing musical directions. “Once that great ‘ah-ha’ came to me about educational children’s music, I couldn’t go back to any other kind of writing,” Dines says.

But, she adds, “A lot of my songs would lend themselves to children’s books, and I would really love to do a children’s television show that is arts — and play — related.” Dines is working on a children’s book that illustrates her song “Down in Sleepytown,” and she hopes to produce a DVD showing parents how to do hand motions and activities to accompany the songs from her Hunk-Ta-Bunk-Ta Funsies albums for children ages 4-18 months.

In the meantime, Dines continues to perform concerts in the United States and abroad — usually solo but sometimes joined by other musicians, including Contreras, Brian Mullins and Dennis O’Hanlon. She also keeps up on more personal engagements, like taking her 6-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew for their first-ever banana splits and then heading straight to the jungle gym.

“I like to play, and that’s a forgotten art,” Dines says.

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