A while ago I wrote a book about my bad experience teaching in a New Orleans public school. I taught for only one semester and it was just too much, too hard. So I was apprehensive about doing it again. But the 5th and 6th graders I now teach Music Writing to, as part of the My House after school learning program, are much, much better. Especially at Crocker Elementary, the kids are refreshingly smart.
I don’t just say this to spare their feelings. Every day the kids come in, eat snacks, then do homework hour, and often when Mrs. Jonie Franklin and I shout, “Okay, times up, put your homework away!” the kids cry “No! Wait! Wait!” This may be because if they come home with work left to do, their parents will know someone’s been goofing off in class. But I honestly believe the My House kids enjoy school, because they’re good at it.
Still they hate to write. Hate the English language. Hate, hate, hate. Hate it. OffBeat long ago agreed to publish the kids’ work here, and even donated 20 local bands’ CDs for them to review. When I would pop in any record, my classroom would instantaneously sound like a very opinionated Chuck E. Cheese birthday party. Until I’d shout, “Okay now! Ready? Set! Write it down!” And suddenly: silence. Suddenly, we weren’t having fun anymore. In the end, to make them write these reviews, I agreed to pay them ten cents a word—I empathize with not wanting to write about music unless money’s involved…
But even then, the kids don’t want to write about anything they don’t like, and their tastes are downright conservative. They’re more than suspicious of any new sounds—and even less receptive to the overly familiar; I had originally wanted their thoughts on albums by celebrated New Orleans artists I’ve never been able to appreciate, but they just totally shut down upon hearing Papa Grows Funk, or Dr. John’s new one. In a Kerouacian stream-of-consciousness, Joshua Reed conceded to write this one:
Better Than Ezra:
Live at House of Blues
“It’s hard to believe these guys actually get paid to sing like that with incorrect language, and the crowd actually goes wild for them right when they’re cursing, and it’s hard to hear the guitar over the drums, and do they always scream in the middle of the song? It’s good how they mix it with the blues so that kids might like it, but the blues does not have bad language.”
Most of our kids have no interest in even good jazz. “It sounds like jazz,” Rontrell Solomon dismissed Harold Battiste, “It sounds like Bill Cosby is playing.” Oddly, the aforementioned Joshua Reed also referenced The Coz, when describing MC Trachiotomy: “It’s like a big zebra skin rug. It’s like dancing spaghetti and meatballs. Like Bill Cosby and his wife in an alley at night.”
Luckily, Oschelle James’ tastes are very open-minded and refined. Oschelle is a favorite student because I never had to fight to make her write. I was very impressed when one day out of the blue Oschelle asked me, “Have you heard Prince’s Musicology?” I also strongly agree with Oschelle’s estimation of local R&B cutout G. LaBeaud. Most of the other kids fell under the spell of LaBeaud’s hackneyed 93.3 flow and pose. But Oschelle knew better:
On the G
“At first I liked it, because he hits all those melodies. But in song number two, all he says is ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.’ Number four sounds like something Sean Paul would sing on. I hate Sean Paul. Song five sounds like Brian McKnight because it is slow. It sounds like Babyface, with backup singing by Ashanti. It sounds gentle, and bluesy and sexy. I think some songs are inappropriate. It is awful when he says words like ‘sex’ and talks about women’s body parts.”
Another attitude the kids and I generally share is that, even when we are getting paid, we’d really rather only write about music with electronic beats. But Larry Labry was even unimpressed by what I consider to be New Orleans’ best electronic music…
The Awful Art of the Bongoloids
“The beat starts off good, then I don’t know what happened. The first song is instrumental. The music is so weird. It gives me the bubbleguts. Number 4 sounds like you are camping. I hear electric guitar. The cymbals are the main instrument in track number 9. Then number 12 has a whole new theme. They had to be drunk when they recorded this album. I give the Bongoloids a 4 out of 5.”
Of everything I played for them, they only unanimously dug Glorybee—though they only got to hear tiny snippets because I had to keep skipping ahead at each song’s first curse word. At one point several kids were actually chanting, “Glorybee! Glorybee! Glorybee!” trying to get me to put it back on. But I told them, “No! In math class you don’t get to choose which kind of math problems you like and only work on those.”
Thankfully Branay Hooker understood the joy there can be in describing what and why you hate. Branay is the class’ Musical Spellingbee Champion. And despite her admitting up-front about my favorite local rock band Testaverde, “This music is not my type,” Branay went on to expound:
“All of the songs on this CD are stupid. When they sing, only one person needs to sing. When two people sing it makes the whole band sound totally whack. The type of people that listen to this music have to be on pills, just crazy, or on dope. I personally would remake this record. You know how they sound now? I would get someone to do like a boom, tac-tac, boom beat for the song. I would sing cooler lyrics to make people really feel what I’m singing. Testaverde kept the bomb in the water, but know that when I come into the game, I’m blowing it out of the water.”
Branay also disagreed with me on
the awesomeness of easy-going progrock
band the Other Planets…
“The lyrics sound stupid. White people listen to this music. I would do this song over. It reminds me of the Temptations. I don’t like this music because it’s for white people.”
Branay is also the sister of pretty-but-hardheaded Renay Hooker. Both sisters have gone off on me about their not wanting to write. But both are also in the top of their class—for some reason, those who write best often dislike writing the most. But in the end Renay gave this fairly accurate review:
Live at the Zoo
“Cowboy Mouth sounds like it’s copying someone else’s music. I’ve never heard this before but I know something about it. Cowboy Mouth can make you feel like you want to go to a party. You can like more than one type of music, but the music of John, Fred, Paul and Mary seems weird. You would not like it if you were a person like me.”
My girl Johnniqua Lowery was a little more kind …
“Cowboy Mouth is rock ‘n’ roll music. He sounds like on the BET Awards when they say ‘Are you ready!’ It sounds in their singing like they’re trying to get something out. The beat is like the sound when you throw a rock at a car. Somebody’s screaming loud and clear. It sounds like you’re bouncing up and down. It sounds like KISS, the band. It is a carrying sound. It is kind of like screaming horses, when you listen to it carefully.”
My other set of class siblings are Xavier (stagename Lil’ X) and ]azmine Harrison. These two will definitely graduate valedictorians of whichever great colleges they attend. Lil’ X stepped forward to take on a CD of edgy swirling trumpet and vocal loops:
“One-Man-Machine—The first song sounds awful. It has a lot of weird sounds and is driving me crazy! I hear a trumpet but it sounds like it’s broken. Songs like this should be on the worst radio station ever. The second song still has bad sounds but I like them a little. The man sounds crazy because he keeps repeating things. I like the background music but not the man’s voice. I like the lyrics but another person needs to sing. Otherwise it’s perfect. The third song sounds like Jamaican people singing. The Jamaican people sound nice, and scary, but they keep saying ‘Revolution’ over and over. The last song sounds really good. It sounds exactly like the blues. I like the flow of the music. The end sounds like they tried to make it scary”
And I nearly hugged little Jazmine—who for a cute little girl can make the meanest faces!—when she enthusiastically agreed to thoroughly review the latest release by abstract expressionist PotPie:
“PotPie does Eno—Song 1—It makes me feel like I am outside alone at night and I’m so comfortable. I can hear the crickets singing about the nighttime glory. The glorious music of joy. Song 2: I like fast music but the way he is playing is too fast for me. I like the fact that it has gotten louder because it helps me understand it better. Some people might not like it because it has no lyrics at all, but to me the music still sounds good. Song 3: As soon as you put it on you will see how great it is. You won’t have to wait for it to even get loud. I can hear him beating with drumsticks, but it sounds like he is beating on concrete. I think it sounds wonderful. Song 4: It sounds like you’re at a funeral. It makes you want to cry and cut the song off. On the other hand you might want to play it on a movie, when someone is about to get killed. Be looking forward to it in theatres really soon. Song 5: This song will make you say ‘Hey, he can play rock music too,’ because all the other songs are classical music. I hear the drums the most. I don’t like this singing because I don’t understand the words. Song 6 – In this song he is with a band too. He is singing about someone or something ‘driving him backwards.’ He needs to let someone else sing because his voice is horrible. There is nothing wrong with him playing an instrument. Beside the voice this song is great.”
And no way could I end this project without getting the kids’ opinion of my own music (hiding my stage name, of course!) and surprisingly, Brian Barrow echoed his classes’ enthusiasm:
“It reminds me of hip-hop. It sounds like a skating rink. I love it. It’s also tight how technology is used to DJ. I thought guitars were boring, but these sound like magic.”
An “A” for you Brian! And ten-cents-a-word!
After my few weeks struggling to get the kids to write about music, I met DeVonna LaRoche and her best friend Lindsay Smith, known to themselves—and now to y’all—as R&B duo Fantasy. Long before I came along, Lindsay was already carrying around her songbook full of lyrics, which DeVonna loyally learns and sings along—DeVonna is very calm and sweet in the face of hyper Lindsay’s constant reminders that “I write all the songs! I choreograph all the dances.”
Anyway, I brought my drum machine in and we programmed out two of the girls’ “originals”. I use quotation marks because I later realized one was stolen! But Fantasy’s other song, “Sweet,” a sassy but positive R&B tune, is an actual winner, honest to god. Ever since I told the girls this, as soon as I arrive at My House they inquire, “You got our money yet?”
But I was even more impressed to find out that Lindsay had already started writing a novel about her musical aspirations, titled Driven: the story of a young girlz dream. In third person, Lindsay describes her and Devonna’s—and many bands’—poetic struggle:
“First there were five girls: Lindsay, Dyman, DeVonna, Taylor, Alexus. Lindsay and the other girls couldn’t find that happy spot. It was hard to agree. Fussing and fighting constantly. The break-ups and make-ups weren’t what she dreamed of. There were times when she tried to take control. She tried to change, but it’s just who she is.”
Driven then goes on to tell how, between third grade and fifth, Lindsay was shaken by the deaths of both her heroes Aaliyah and TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, and Fantasy’s line-up was eventually pared down to just its essential two members, Lindsay and DeVonna: Fantasy. Coming soon!
To find out more about My House after-school and summer learning programs, contact them at 504-895- 4242 or visit them online at www.myhouseinc.org.