A Night at the Fais Do-Do

There is a burgundy motif at Club Fais Do-Do — burgundy curtains, burgundy tablecloths. The eastern wall is also painted a dark red hue but seems to have other colors
beneath that seep through from the past.

Just south of the 10 Freeway, in a nondescript part of Culver City, three young men test their music equipment on the stage at this hipster cafĂ©/club that books regular gigs and treats visitors to New Orleans cuisine, including Creole and Cajun dishes like po’boys, jambalaya and even a Ya’Ya Turkey Burger (“good for you, bad for the turkey,” reads its description).

On this night, in addition to these savories, the ” target = “_blank”>N.O.M.A.D.S., short for Notorious Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Sh*t. The concert is co-sponsored by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in conjunction with its current exhibition, “Sovereign Threads: The History of Palestinian Embroidery.”

One might wonder if this will be an incendiary evening, given that it features hip-hoppers, artists known for insurrection. But the three men onstage are mild-mannered musicians, three skinny white kids, probably in their 20s, who it turns out are the opening act, New West.

After keeping us waiting for the obligatory hour, the funk-rock band plays a half-dozen songs, during the last few of which members of the crowd begin dancing. It’s an intimate venue, with a high ceiling but only a few tables and booths, so most people stand.

Later, the audience comes out in even greater numbers in anticipation of the Legitimates, another funk-rock outfit. As the Legitimates mount the stage, they wear black hats and black suits, some of a rumpled variety, and bear a resemblance to the Blues Brothers or “a bunch of Chasidic diamond merchants,” to quote Aretha Franklin from the film starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
But they are not necessarily Jews, and given how hot it is onstage, the band members, led by front man drummer Donnie Baseball, named in honor of former Yankee star Don Mattingly, begin to discard their jackets. Baseball plays a ferocious set of drums as the band performs several instrumentals.

As midnight approaches, a tall youth with some fuzz above his lip steps before the microphone. Like the Legitimates, the emcee, clean-cut by rapper standards, wears a dark suit and a dark Yankees cap, adhering to the Bronx Bomber theme. He says his name is Ragtop, but it’s a moniker. His real name is Nizar Wattad, and he was, according to the press material, “born on a mountain in Palestine.”

Ragtop says he is 6-foot-5, but because he is so thin, it is hard to judge his height. It is also hard to judge his voice. Despite his Yankee cap and the fact that he was raised in Tennessee, his voice doesn’t seem to come from either New York or the South. He produces a sound that blends in nicely with the band, and he doesn’t show off or become obstreperous like some rappers, but with his dynamic physical gestures and syncopated intonation, he exudes a kind of ghetto authenticity.

Ragtop, along with a cohort with a shaved head, rap of “that long time ago”; they rap about the proletariat, tsunamis and a lack of justice. But they do so cheerfully, respectfully.

After they point out that rapping requires a participatory audience, Ragtop asks, “Who here holds down a 9-to-5 job they hate?” A number of people in the crowd raise their hands.

This is about as subversive as the Philistines get. They look almost wholesome in their suits and clean or trim beards, though their shirts stylishly hang outside their pants. And they occasionally adopt Ragtop’s partial Southern roots, addressing the crowd as “y’all.” Indeed, these Arab street hip-hoppers come across as being almost All-American.

With midnight approaching and bedtime beckoning, my wife and I grab a CD comprised of “23 rounds of heavyweight hip-hop” between the N.O.M.A.D.S. and the Philistines.

Slipping the CD into the car player, we finally hear something approximating Arab music. There is a wind instrument, perhaps a flute, playing in the intro. It wafts in the background, as if through the labyrinthine air of a bazaar. We imagine a swami is calling us, trying to draw us out like a genie, until the gangsta rap pierces the moment.

That is when we return to urban American hip-hop, with all the tropes of the art form — the ubiquitous, nonstop patter; the ingenious rhymes, such as “Iverson” with “Bedford-Stuyvesant”; the word-smithery and prolonged assonance of multisyllabic words beginning with the letter O.

The N.O.M.A.D.S. battle the Philistines to a draw. Both are hailed for drawing attention to the angst of checkpoints, but it is hard to discern all the lyrics, let alone any political content in them, just the occasional reference to Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah or Mexico.

They even have a joint song titled, “The Inquisition.” In it, my wife, a better listener than I, detects the phrase, “passing for a Jew.” Whether or not they can pass for Jews, they can certainly pass for rappers as American as Kanye West or Eminem.

Friends Unite to Rock the Classroom

On a sunny afternoon at Cheremoya Avenue Elementary School in Hollywood, fourth- and fifth-graders rapped to a poem about slavery, accompanied by a ponytailed musician on an African drum.

“This isn’t necessarily proper English,” the musician said afterward, while helping ethnically diverse students analyze the poem. “But whenever we work with lyrics or poetry we can change things around a little bit, to create a bit of attitude … and have some fun.”

The unusual — and fun — lesson is part of a new program, Rock the Classroom, which uses music to help students master reading and writing and perform well on standardized tests.

“Music education has been shown to improve memory, test scores and overall performance in virtually all subjects,” said Bradley Kesden, the program’s executive director. “We link everything to the existing curriculum.”

While the pilot program is based at Cheremoya and Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in Baldwin Hills, it actually began across town in Pacific Palisades — not in a school board office but in a chavurah founded by three Kehillat Israel congregants 18 months ago.

The congregants were Kesden, a rock ‘n’ roll band leader, author and screenwriter; philanthropist Richard Foos, founder of Rhino Records and the Shout! Factory; and Adlai Wertman, a Wexner Heritage Foundation fellow who quit investment banking to head Chrysalis, a nonprofit that helps poor and homeless people find jobs, in 2001.

The three men became friends after discovering their daughters attended the same Hebrew school class two years ago: “We decided to create a structure to our relationship, and that structure was Judaism,” Wertman said. Thus the friends founded a mini-chavurah, hiring a rabbi to conduct monthly study sessions for themselves and their families.

“We wanted to observe Shabbat, celebrate the holidays and do charitable work, tikkun olam, together in a Jewish context,” Wertman said.

Rock the Classroom came about when Kesden, burned out by a difficult celebrity book- writing experience, expressed his desire to leave show business for the teaching profession.

Foos piped up that he’d wanted to start a free music program in the public schools, where arts education has languished since Proposition 13 cut funding in the 1970s. “We all looked at each other and Adlai said, ‘Someone is going to have to quit their [day] job,'” Foos recalled.

Kesden immediately agreed: with advice from Foos and Wertman, he immersed himself in research to ensure Rock didn’t infringe on existing programs and that it stood out among the approximately 30,000 nonprofits competing for funding in Los Angeles County.

“What we found is that due to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative and other standards, you could show up with the world’s best music program, and teachers wouldn’t have time to teach it,” Kesden said. “But if we created something linked to the existing curriculum, we could get in.”

After hiring a consultant and raising more than $40,000 from private sources, the philanthropists zeroed in on a Civil War unit in a Los Angeles Unified School District textbook. The first school to sign on was Cheremoya, where professional musicians began visiting classrooms weekly, with instruments such as guitars and ukuleles in tow.

“First we teach music basics in a fun, kinesthetic way,” Kesden said of the program. “Eight kids shouting their names in a line demonstrates melody. Eight kids shouting the same names in falsetto behind them demonstrates harmony.”

Students study simile and metaphor by performing an underground railroad song, “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”; they learn about how slaves created the blues and write their own blues songs, following specific rhyme schemes and illustrating Civil War characters.

“Does anyone know why it’s called ‘the blues?'” a teacher recently asked Cheremoya students.

“Because blue is the color of depression,” one girl replied.

In September, Rock the Classroom will expand to Crescent Heights Elementary; its founders have raised an additional $50,000 to help the project go even wider next year.

“We want the program in every third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classroom in L.A.,” Wertman said.

Its already worked wonders at Cheremoya, according to principal Chris Stehr.

“There are students being engaged by Rock the Classroom who otherwise would be spending afternoons in the principal’s office,” he said. “This [is] … what education is all about.”

For more information about Rock the Classroom, call (310)458-0822 or visit www.rocktheclassroom.org .