A seminar on bringing the go-go sound to D.C. public schools

February 16, 2013

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 professional-development 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, question-focus 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.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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