From rock to walk
10 years after 'MMMBop,' the Hanson brothers seek a new mission: aiding Africa

By Kristi Oloffson
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It takes less than five seconds of listening to Hanson's album The Walk to realize something is drastically different.

The voices of a South African children's choir echo out, chanting the words "Ngi Ne Themba," meaning "I Have Hope" in their native isiZulu language. Hanson's fourth studio album, released July 2007, opens with the voices of the very children the group is inspired to help.

It's been 10 years since "MMMBop," the 1997 single that was No. 1 in 27 countries. The long-running brotherly trio of Isaac, 27, Taylor, 24, and Zac, 22 -- recently shifted its musical focus to alleviating poverty and AIDS problems in Africa. Maybe they've grown up a little bit since 1997 -- after all, each of the brothers is married now, and both Taylor and Isaac have kids, and just this Monday, Zac confirmed on that he and his wife are expecting. Or maybe, as Taylor says, the group simply "felt like we were called to go."

After recording much of The Walk in Africa in 2006, the group soon set up several other ways to help.

"To me it was a response to an emergency calling," Taylor said. "People really are faced with something they can't help themselves with. I feel like, as a generation of people, we have so much available to us that we become so complacent. ... Everyone has something they can use. And we chose music."

By choosing music, the group donated all sales from the album's first single "Great Divide" directly to African communities, funding prevention and education projects as well as paying for drugs that prevent the spreading of HIV and AIDS from mothers to children.

"This isn't a press campaign that we're trying to get attention for our album," Zac says. "The problems with AIDS are here to stay. It's just a matter of how much an impact we can make."

Through a partnership with TOMS shoes, the brothers also helped thousands of pairs be distributed to needy Africans. And for the second time since 2005, the brothers will be back in Bloomington to perform, at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Bluebird.

The Walk

Before Thursday's concert, longtime fans will have a unique chance to get a closer glimpse of their favorite brothers. The group organized one-mile walks barefoot through the cities on each stop of The Walk tour, as a way to take action and be in the position of those who have much less. More than 35 barefoot walks have inspired fans to buy pairs of TOMS shoes that are then donated.

"(It's) the understanding of putting themselves in another person's position: by being in need for one mile," Taylor says. "It just puts a perspective that you really do make a difference by giving somebody a pair of shoes."

Less than two weeks ago, Isaac, Taylor and Zac returned to South Africa to hand out the shoes that had been donated. Thursday's performance will be the band's first show since the trip.

"The thing about going is you don't know how it's going to affect you," Zac said before the trip. "Again you go and see, and it's sort of overwhelming."

He said he expects the trip to give him and his brothers a "renewed sense of drive," one he expects to show up in Thursday's show.

Even Bluebird promotions manager Ari Solomon said that though he wasn't a fan of Hanson in its early days, The Walk changed his mind. So much, in fact, that he was the main recruiter in bringing the group back to Bloomington. The Bluebird offers a unique chance for fans to experience groups such as Hanson that have played stadiums, yet are now just feet away from their fans.

"You can think of it as you seeing them one on one," Solomon says. "There could be hundreds of people in the Bluebird, but it's still very private and personal."

Along with classics from Middle of Nowhere -- Hanson's debut album that soon will be re-released acoustically -- and new songs from The Walk, Taylor said he expects at least one Christmas song to appear during the show. He even hinted at a possible new holiday album by Christmas 2008.

"It's now been long enough that it makes sense to kind of go back to that," he says. "Let's just say we've definitely talked about it."

Moving forward

Being a band more than 10 years in the making hasn't come without its challenges. Recently, oldest brother Isaac suffered a life-threatening blood clot, one that confined him to the hospital and will force him to have shoulder surgery in December. Raising families on the road and constantly combating the stereotype of "MMMBop," the trio has been forced to find new ways to prove the group is pressing on.

"You'll always have to say, 'Well, yeah, that's not who we are anymore,'" Taylor said. "As a band we've always been really proud of our first stuff, and we always will be.

"We've never slowed down in our progression with the evolution of the band. We're really proud of where we've been, and it's also a real challenge just to continue to push forward."

Zac added that though their early success is different from the success they have now, they don't see any slowing down and are content with their loyal fan base.

"With our first record it kind of hit a chord with people that almost never happened," he said. "I'm really happy with where we are now. The crazy decisions we've made seem to be turning out pretty well."

Taylor emphasized that no matter where the music takes them, inspiring fans to take action in their own lives remains the band's most important goal.

"The biggest question isn't the ability to make an impact and heal people's lives, but more a question of whether we will decide to be a part," Taylor said.