BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
It was easy to pick out Shana Banana at a crowded Starbucks one morning last week. She was the woman with banana earrings.
Her real name is Shana Smith, but she got the "Banana" nickname as a baby, and it was natural to take it for her stage name as a children's entertainer. On Friday in Carrollwood, she'll be thoroughly banana-fied, wearing a yellow and green outfit and a Santa's elf hat with bananas on it to perform a holiday show she calls "Merry Chriskwanzanukah."
"It has to do with the cultural traditions of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza," Smith says. "The lesson is that we all have so much in common. We leave the show with what Kwanza calls umoja, or unity, the feeling that we're all one big planet, one big people."
Seven or eight years ago, Shana Banana was a ubiquitous presence on the children's entertainment circuit. Her punk rock I Want To Be a Dinosaur was named children's song of the year in 2003 by the Just Plain Folks Music Awards, and she performed frequently in the Tampa Bay area and around the country. But she has been less active since having children of her own. She and her husband, Dan Smith, have a daughter, 7, and son, 2.
"Having kids made a big difference," she says. "My ambition dropped back to find balance and grounding."
Smith, 43, recently moved from Gainesville to St. Petersburg, where she previously lived, and is teaching class three days a week in the Starfish program, which combines marine science with art, drama and writing for pre-K to fifth-graders at Admiral Farragut Academy. The program was designed by Smith, who studied to be an oceanographer and has degrees from Eckerd College and the University of South Florida. She came to performing somewhat late.
"I think I lucked out because I started out as a grownup singer-songwriter," Smith says. "I grew up on Sesame Street, so that was my earliest influence with children's music. When I started studying children's songwriting, Raffi was my No. 1."
She's also a big fan of Trout Fishing in America, a duo that performs folk and children's music. "They're the ones who showed me it's all about the music and the energy of the performance, and it's not about the props," Smith says. "When I first started doing shows, I used a lot of props. I saw them at Skipper's (in Tampa), and it was just two guys, two instruments and a Teddy bear. It turned me upside down."
Today, Smith does children shows with guitar and a pair of puppets, and her focus is on songwriting. "In my early shows, I was insane," she says. "I'd jump up and down and run up in the stands. Now it's much more about the material."
Nevertheless, a Shana Banana show is still a lively, interactive affair. "The program is constructed in such a way that everybody can sing, everybody can dance, everybody can participate," she says. "It's not just a sit and watch kind of show."
Smith also performs for adults, such as a house concert Jan. 21 in Treasure Island (see shanabanana.com), but sometimes the audience misunderstands. "I love the Shana Banana thing, but people will say, 'Oh, Shana Banana is here,' and all the kids come," she says. "But it's supposed to be a singer-songwriter show."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.