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Hansons walk the talk – literally – on social activism

MARSHA LEDERMAN

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

September 10, 2008 at 3:30 AM EDT

VANCOUVER — From the boys who brought you MmmBop comes something they hope will be just as catchy: a social conscience. Hanson - brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac - have set off on what they're calling their Walk Around The World Tour. Beyond promoting their album The Walk, they're working to raise awareness of the crushing poverty in Africa - and to raise money to try to eradicate the problem through health care, education and basic supplies.

The tour, which hits Vancouver today, includes a charity walk at each stop. Fans are asked to show up at a specified time and location to walk with the brothers for one mile, barefoot. For each mile walked by each fan, the band is donating $1 (U.S.). Money raised goes to various causes, including buying shoes for children in South Africa, building a hospital in Soweto and helping the Toronto-based charity Free The Children raise money for a school in Kenya. The idea is to tally up 24,902 miles (or 40,000 kilometres) - the equivalent of walking around the world.

"It's a call to action to our fans," says Taylor Hanson, the middle brother and the band's androgynous sex symbol back in the day. "We're really saying you have the power to take the lead and get involved."

Hanson (originally the Hanson Brothers) will forever be associated with the ubiquitous MmmBop - a smash No. 1 hit that helped their major label debut, Middle of Nowhere, sell more than four million albums in the United States alone. The super-poppy single catapulted the young brothers to superstardom at a very young age; Zac, on drums, was just 11 when the record came out.

There have been three studio albums since, but the band has never been able to match that early success. The last two projects have been released as independents on the Hansons' own label, including The Walk, which came out last year. Next up: a five-song EP that comes with a coffee-table book called Take the Walk, which both focuses on the band's fundraising efforts and aims to raise more money for the venture.

The brothers' interest in Africa was sparked by their introduction in 2006 to a medical technology firm in Tulsa, Okla., where the band is based. The company had developed technology that would allow doctors to treat patients remotely, in particular AIDS patients. The Hansons were so intrigued - by the invention and the issue - that they decided to put the album they were making on hold and travel to Africa to see the situation for themselves and to determine whether there was anything they could do to help.

"It's something that we have to face or history will turn its back and say, 'How could you not look at this issue, because it's wiping out a whole generation of people,' " says Taylor Hanson, who has three children and a fourth on the way.

While in South Africa and Mozambique, they recorded with a school choir and also took along a tape recorder to capture sounds from the streets. The results can be heard on The Walk on songs such as Great Divide, Been There Before and Blue Sky.

"It sounds cliché, but the best thing we can do is use our music. That's the best tool we have."

Brother Zac, just 8 when he co-wrote MmmBop, is now 22, a father, and deeply passionate about bringing more attention to the AIDS tragedy.

"AIDS is this dirty disease that nobody wants to talk about, but unfortunately it's affecting millions of families and millions of children and it's something that just can't be ignored because [in North America] we're only protected by our affluence," he says.

"We realized that it's going to take something happening here in the heartland of the country - not in L.A. or New York, but in Texas and Oklahoma and the places that are mid-America - for people to really go, 'Okay, what is this issue and how do I face it?' "

The two brothers do exhibit what appears to be a genuine concern and passion for the issue, heightened, they both say, by the fact they are now parents. And any suggestion that this campaign might be a way for the original Jonas Brothers prototype to rebrand themselves as a serious musical group is summarily dismissed.

First of all, Zac says, he has no interest in rebranding; he is proud of all of the band's accomplishments, including - no, especially - MmmBop, for which he and his brothers were nominated for three Grammy Awards. "I wouldn't give that up for anything."

He also points out that the song has been praised by the band's peers - and then some. Its street cred got a boost four years ago when U2's Bono - one of the world's biggest rock stars (not to mention social activists) - said during an interview that MmmBop was one of his favourite songs of all time.

While Taylor acknowledges that The Walk project may shed a different light on the band, he says the shift is coming from the right place: from their heart, not a marketing executive's idea of how to put a new-millennium face on the once-teeny-boppers.

"It's not a fad," he says. "The same way that our band isn't a fad."