Work­shop of­fers teach­ers a les­son plan with a beat

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY SU­SAN SVR­LUGA svr­lu­gas@wash­post.com

“My kids are al­ways beat­ing and knock­ing and hum­ming.” Teacher Para Perry, on chil­dren’s nat­u­ral at­trac­tion to mu­sic

Denise Du­mas, a world his­tory teacher from the Mid­west with gray curls, pale skin and granny glasses, had not heard of go-go be­fore she moved to the District.

Now she knows Sugar Bear, David “32” El­lis and Sweet Cherie — and she’s go­ing to bring some of that old-school funk to her class­room.

On Satur­day, go-go mu­si­cians taught so­cial stud­ies and mu­sic teach­ers from D.C. pub­lic schools how to lace the city’s sig­na­ture sound into their les­son plans, an ef­fort to cel­e­brate the stu­dents’ cul­tural her­itage and bet­ter en­gage them in class.

The pro­gram — “Teach the Beat: Go Go in DC” — had the usual trap­pings of a pro­fes­sion­alde­vel­op­ment sem­i­nar: name tags, flu­o­res­cent light­ing, Post-it notes. But it also had hints of the sweaty, dance-crazy club scene, with thump­ing pocket beats and swivel­ing necks, and more than a few an­swers to teach­ers’ ques­tions spun off into long, im­pro­vi­sa­tional riffs.

It's hard to cap­ture go-go on a record­ing, John “JB” Buchanan told the teach­ers. The mu­sic is a lot about jam­ming and the in­tense re­ac­tion from the crowd, the arm-wav­ing, hip-shak­ing and call-and-re­sponse.

For Du­mas, that means she can try us­ing the mu­sic to get stu­dents not only to lis­ten but also to par­tic­i­pate in class. She knows most of her ninth-graders at Car­dozo High School — some of whom are 17 be­cause they have re­peat­edly failed cour­ses — don’t see the his­tory she teaches as rel­e­vant to their lives in the city.

“I should teach them their his­tory,” she said at the sem­i­nar, which was held in a South­east Washington government build­ing. “That’s the hard thing with world his­tory . . . get­ting the con­nec­tions.” She was sur­prised by the com­plex­ity of the mu­sic, with its traces of gospel, blues, jazz, funk, rap.

“In­stead of read­ing about Phoeni­cians or the Byzan­tine Em­pire, we’ll read this,” she said, hold­ing a copy of a book about go-go in the District.

Nekos Brown, whose fa­ther, Chuck Brown, was known as the God­fa­ther of Go-Go, re­mem­bered wak­ing up to mu­sic, fall­ing asleep to mu­sic and be­ing back­stage and on­stage at the clubs. But he told the teach­ers that he didn’t hear go-go in school and that he waited for the bell so he could run to the store and get the lat­est CD.

“To have it in the class­room, that will help them have some­thing to re­late to, some­thing to look for­ward to,” he said.

Chuck Brown died last year. If he could have been there Satur­day, Nekos Brown said, he would have cracked a joke, and he would have been wip­ing away tears. Sev­eral peo­ple said Chuck Brown’s death had made them think about go-go’s legacy.

As par­tic­i­pants made their way through a “gallery walk” — a se­ries of mini-ex­hibits about the D.C. mu­sic scene — many stopped at a quote about “a seis­mic shift” in the mid-2000s, when black peo­ple no longer made up the ma­jor­ity of prop­erty own­ers in the city. The teach­ers and mu­si­cians wrote com­ments and stuck them on the walls next to the quotes and pho­to­graphs, such things as: “D.C. is no longer Choco­late City as we once knew it. Does the funkadelic sound still have rel­e­vance?”

Dur­ing the sem­i­nar, par­tic­i­pants also talked about the his­tory of drums in African cul­ture and about how the tra­di­tion con­tin­ued, even when peo­ple used empty buck­ets, crates and hub­caps as the Junk­yard Band did.

“My kids are al­ways beat­ing and knock­ing and hum­ming when they come in,” said Para Perry, who teaches at Ami­donBowen Ele­men­tary School and who sug­gested that schools should have more in­stru­ments to help di­rect all that en­ergy into mu­sic.

The idea of bring­ing go-go to school started with Charles Stephen­son and Kip Lor­nell, who wrote a book about the mu­sic, said Ben Hall, di­rec­tor of mu­sic for the school sys­tem. With help from the D.C. Com­mis­sion on the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties and the non­profit Teach­ing for Change, sug­gested les­son plans will go on­line at the­beat­is­gogo.com.

The teach­ers watched videos of club scenes and asked go-go leg­ends ques­tions. (Gre­gory “Sugar Bear” El­liott took the mic, grinned at the au­di­ence and rolled out an “Oww!” be­fore an­swer­ing.)

They talked about vi­o­lence at some clubs and about how to con­nect the old go-go with the mu­sic that stu­dents lis­ten to now (with lyrics that make many teach­ers cringe). One teacher said he asks his stu­dents to teach him about bounce beats and other things they lis­ten to. Once they re­al­ize that they’re part of a con­ver­sa­tion, not a lec­ture, they’re open to learn­ing, he said.

And then, af­ter all the brain­storm­ing, di­a­logu­ing, ques­tion­fo­cus tech­niques and eval­u­at­ing — fi­nally — JuJu, Stan­ley Cooper, Chris “Geron­imo” Allen and all the other mu­si­cians got to­gether and jammed. The teach­ers let loose and danced to the beat.

EVA RUSSO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Jan­ice Evans, an in­stru­men­tal mu­sic teacher, gives the drums a try, with guid­ance fom Chris “Geron­imo” Allen, dur­ing a sem­i­nar on go-go mu­sic for D.C. teach­ers. For a photo gallery, visit post­lo­cal­com.

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