Friday, December 21, 2007

Carols With a Bounce Beat

Posted By on Fri, Dec 21, 2007 at 1:29 AM

Yesterday, my after-school 'Music Writing' students rocked their big Xmas presentation in the large, reverberating performance auditorium of Behrman Elementary on the West Bank. Compared to Orleans Parish schools, Behrman is great; the kids almost all meet their grade level expectations. I was recently moved to Behrman after mold shut down my former school, Craig Elementary in the Treme. Though I loved the Craig kids, too many of them, regardless of age, read and wrote at a kindergarten or pre-K level. Which is definitely parents' fault. Kids should be semi-literate before entering kindergarten.

Anyway, with only one week to prepare, my Behrman ‘Music Writing’ students programmed the beats, wrote the lyrics and worked-out melodies for a wholly original Xmas song – which we hadn’t even time to title. Per usual, after I’d helped the kids pen the chorus, they were so excited to have something of their own to sing all together, that the remaining elements fell quickly into place. Sarajena, age 11, suggested a slowish Jamaican dancehall beat for said chorus:

Sometimes it snows for Xmas / down here in New Orleans/

But even though / it doesn’t always snow / we still know /

what Xmas means.

It’s about laughing and singing / and jingle-bells ringing

And presents unwrapped in our dreams /

It’s about giving and getting / and never forgetting

What Xmas means!

The aforementioned Sarajeni is sort of a genius, which she sort of knows – I’m very smart / and I’m into art, she rapped my first day at Behrman. Though she shares few words, barely meets my eye when we do speak, and rarely smiles (giving her a false aura of defiance that sometimes psyches me out) Sarajeni always participates in class. When I hopped over to her table to pump her up about performing for 50 or 60 parents (mostly moms), Sarajeni claimed no nervousness -- logical, since today she would blend-in with the background singers, having not written her own solo rap. “I am not a rapper,” Sarajeni had already told me, eyes down.

“Well you can’t say you’re not a rapper until you try…”

“I’ve rapped before,” she corrected me. “One of my cousins is in the rapping buisiness, so I’ve tried it a lot.”

“You’ve written some pretty good ones though,” I reminded her.

“I can write them, I just don’t sound good saying them,” she discerned, and though she did not see me I nodded, because the same holds true for my squirrelly white voice. “I like writing books more,” she continued. “Back in second grade I won a contest and had a book published." When I told her I was 27 upon publication of my first book, she looked at me like I was retarded.

I proceeded over to the younger kids’ table to quell their possible fears. “Nervous?” scoffed Ahmad, age 8, “Rapping is like, my hobby.” Ahmad was one of my four rap soloists. His simple lyrics featured some tricky time changes he'd struggled to master. He and I spent this whole week staring across at each other as my fists pounded-out beats on the long plastic lunch table, and Ahmad repeated these lines:

Xmas is my favorite day / when Santa Clause goes on that sleigh

Oh lord I want to be on that sleigh / Xmas comes in December, not in May

What Xmas means to me? / Santa Clause puts presents under my tree

Solo rapper Becca, age 7, hadn’t a worry either. “I’m excited!” she bubbled in braids and Xmas bows. “I’ve rapped in front of a crowd before – in front of my family at a Father’s Day party. I rapped about what I was doing in school, and how I’m smart and stuff.” Since nailing her cute little verse on the first try last week, Becca had recited it to me hundreds of times:

Jingle, jingle, I like toys / I got friends, girls AND boys

I might be good, I might be bad / Still I get stuff from mom and dad

If I don’t get nothin’ I’ma be so sad / But if I get my baby doll, I’ma be so glad

12-year-old Alliah rejected even the notion of nervousness: “I only worry about falling off the stage,” said Alliah. “Aside from that, well, I’m going to be a TV news reporter when I get older, so I’m not allowed to be nervous.” Alliah actually carries her own real microphone in her purse to practice her interview technique. Right now, before the big show, she was passing her mic back and forth between her and rap partner Tresura (pronounced, simply Treasure):

Alliah: Xmas is the holiday, when we celebrate /

We all give gifts and we thank God for this day /

I get special gifts like an Xbox 360 /

MP3 player and a Chris Brown CD

Tresura: Xmas is the time when we open our gifts /

And hope that we receive our big Xmas wish /

For me I hope I get that Xmas heart and joy /

Cause you know it’s worth more than any toy

45 minutes before show time, everything feels perfect -- until it falls apart, upon our realization that no one brought a P.A. system. We have nothing to amplify the puppetshow, or the dance class's backing music, or my beats. For three years now, I’ve dragged 70-pounds of musical gear to school every afternoon. But for this one big show, Coach Mike had told me, more than once, not to worry with my 250-watt amp, because he would bring the big P.A., the one his breakdancing crew use to perform on Jackson square. Which is why, for once, I gladly left my daily burden at home to drag only one backpack crammed with mics, cables, lyric sheets and a silver drum machine. Then directly after psyching my kids up, my hopes crashed: “I couldn’t bring my P.A.,” Coach Mike casually told me. “My partners using it on another gig.”

“Can’t you tell them we need it for some little kids?”

“Their gig’s at the Children’s Hospital!”

“Damn, sick kids. They win.”

If I drove my beater car from Algiers all the way to my house beside the Naval Base, and then back, even if I somehow avoided getting trapped behind annoying Bywater trains, the clock would surely beat me . Still, I decided to do it. I cellphoned my Supervisor, who was already somewhere deep in the school trying to rustle up another P.A. option.

“This is all your fault,” were some of her first stunning words. “I can’t believe you did this! You are a grown man, you should have known better.”

“Than to trust Coach Mike? Of course I trust him I…”

“You did not tell me about any agreement with Mike.”

“You were too busy with other stuff to talk to me about it at all! Which I understand but… No way is this my fault.”

My Supervisor berated me some more, pronounced the conversation over, then hung up on me. But I swear, she had been too busy to absorb the show’s every production detail, and just assumed we teachers would figure it out ourselves. Which we did: Coach Mike took public responsibility for providing the P.A. Done. I didn’t think to doubt him and lug my burden across the river anyway.

Regardless, my Supervisor spread her wrongheaded view to the Band Director, who regarded me with aloof disdain similar to Sarajeni’s, when he barely told me he would try driving up the street to a pawnshop. Whether or not he believed me a putz: thank Clause for the Band Director! He returned after the quiet puppetshow (which nonetheless provoked much clapping and gold-tooth laughter from the moms) carrying a little 40-watt amplifier that saved the freaking day for my students’ electronic beats. My kids sung their original Xmas song with heartfelt enthusiasm, at the huge volume I’d always begged from them. They recited their rap verses flawlessly, before rocking a merely adequate, “Jingle Bells / Jingle Bell Rock” medley over N.O. bounce and hip-hop beats.

Driving home from this workday, I definitely stopped off at Gene’s on St Claude and Elysian Fields for a Xmas Peach-and-White Russian daiquiri -- and somehow avoided all Bywater trains! Merry Xmas!

To hear the kids’ actual original music, or to read more Gambit Weekly articles about ‘Mr Michael’s Music Writing Class’ featuring the kids’ hilariously mean and insightful album reviews of New Orleans bands, visit myspace.com/mrmichaelsclass

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