Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Have Guitar, Will Travel - David Gets A Gig

After 35+ years I still have the touch. Just show up with the guitar and you become a chick magnet. Of course, the ones I am now attracting are mostly 10 or 11 years old and don’t speak English. My college roommates would probably tell you that this is an improvement over my past efforts. The bottom line is that David, and Jeff’s Backpacker guitar, have a gig.

Liz does volunteer work a couple of days a week at Beit Noar Kadima, a children’s after school center in the northern end of Shapira. Shapira makes Hatikvah look like a well-to-do suburb. Liz helps the children (who look to be in the 9 to 12 year old range) with their English; they try to teach her Hebrew. Liz has become obsessed with learning Hebrew. She stops whatever she is doing an hour or two before her 5-day-a-week Ulpan to study and prepare for the day’s work. This is more effort than went into college or law school (I know, I was there). Maybe its because this time she really wants to learn. She is also saying that two months is really not long enough to get into the flow of life here. Last spring, 9 days was not enough and we had to come back and try two months. You can see where this is heading. I don’t think she’s ready for Aliyah, yet, but this is a land where people will say one thing and then do another. If the Prime Minister can so indulge, why not my wife?

Anyway, Liz decided that I should come to the after school center and play guitar. I don’t speak Hebrew, I know only a handful of songs in Hebrew and those are used in a Sabbath service for 2 to 5 year olds. Also, I rarely play in front of more than 2 or 3 very close friends who will love me in spite of what they hear. So the concept was a bit daunting. Then again, I’ve shlepped Jeff Canter’s Backpacker Guitar this far, I may as well take it out of its case. The Backpacker is a small-bodied instrument designed by Martin to fit into or onto backpacks and airplane overheads. You lose the base but you do wind up with enough of a guitar to keep you going while far away from home. Jeff lends it to me during my hospital stays and the guitar (plus a good hit of Zanax) keeps me calm while they commit medicine on me. I’ve also brought two songbooks. One is my personal collection (Gino – maybe I’ll do Beautiful Day) and the other is “Rise Up Singing” a book of 1200 songs with guitar chords and political commentary from the folks at Sing Out magazine. Think of it as a massive, though physically compact, Pete Seeger cheat book. So, armed with my traveling folksinger weapons I head off to make myself useful.

To get to Beit Noar Kadima we take a sherut to the “New” Central Bus Station (a place that deserves and will get a blog of its own). Liz already knows the neighborhood and the shortcuts. So we walk around to the rear of the “New” Bus Station, cross a street with no crosswalk and head up an alley toward what looks for all the world like a chop shop in a particularly seedy (the kids now say, sketchy) neighborhood in Queens. We went left, past the chop shop and came out onto a park. Whoever designed this city thought to put green spaces and playgrounds in the middle of houses and alleyways in every neighborhood, rich or poor or whatever. Just off the park is Beit Noar Kadima. The center has a single story building holding a couple of classrooms (one set up with books, TV, chairs and couches, another packed with computers with high speed internet connections), a kitchen/dining hall (this is a Jewish country – no child goes unfed nor do the caretakers) and a couple of tiny offices for the staff. On one side of the building is a small basketball/soccer court. On the other side is an alley with a concrete ledge good for sitting. The kids can also move various pieces of furniture outside in nice weather. Its run down but serviceable and clearly a safe haven run by a caring staff.

Yael is the head teacher (or at least the teacher with the best English so she gets to be in charge of us). Carmel and Hagit are both young (about 20) and work here as an alternative to Army service. There may be a couple of other teachers but I did not get to meet them this trip. There is also one middle aged man who seems to be in charge of maintenance, cooking and, probably, security.

I haven’t a clue what to do. Yael and Liz sit me down next to Carmel, who is preparing her lesson, and we talk about what songs the kids might like. Liz suggests that any old folks songs and some simple stuff will do. I tune up and get my fingers working. Carmel recognizes Dylan’s Tambourine Man and Blowin’ in the Wind. (I told you a guitar is a chick magnet.) We work on a Hanukah song and discover that the words are different in Israel from what we sing in the Disapora (the Galut to you fans of Talmudic terms). In the Galut we sing Sive Von with the words A Great Miracle Happened There (Nes Gadol Haya Sham). In Israel they sing “Nes Gadol Haya Po” (A Great Miracle Happened Here). A few other words change to get the whole thing to rhyme but you get the idea.

Soon the kids start to arrive. I just sit on a couch, picking out a couple of songs and occasionally getting some company. Still clueless, I get invited out into the alley to play and help an 11-year-old friend of Liz with the alphabet. Now, in America, I am an Ivy League graduate and a Law Review Editor. In Tel Aviv, I am the Village Idiot.*** But in Beit Noar Kadima, I am a novelty act. I’m like having a demented but funny uncle. With children, a bit of music, a smile and some body language can translate into a good time. Liz suggests that we all sing the alphabet song. Since virtually all songs can be faked with three cowboy chords (root, 4th, 5th) and a cloud of dust, I launch into the alphabet song, which proves to be a big, sing-a-long hit. So much so that I have to repeat it a number of times. Some things are truly universal as the Israeli kids get stuck on that old favorite, the “elemeno p.” Soon I have requests from the kids to let them play (a couple of them claimed to have touched a guitar before). So I passed the guitar around, tried to teach them the chords to the alphabet song and, finally, put the instrument into open, drop D tuning so that no matter what got strummed it sounded musical. Don’t worry Jeff, the guitar survived though it may have a few sticky fingerprints.

Just about then Hagit comes out and asks me if I know “The Sound of Music.” It sounded to me like the children learned it in Hebrew as a group and she wanted me to accompany them. So I looked into Rise Up Singing and, sonofagun, it’s in there. So I start to learn the chords and sing a bit. One of what are now “my” kids starts to sing the Do, Re, Me song from the show, in Hebrew. Now I’m worried that I’ve learned the wrong song. Not to worry. It turns out that three other kids have learned Sound of Music in Hebrew, worked out some choreography and are planning to perform in a talent contest to be held at the center this Thursday. Hagit wanted me to help them rehearse and then accompany them for their performance. The three girls were very happy to have me and, after a few run-throughs, things were getting on key and tight. So, it appears that I now have a gig and, if I don’t screw up too badly, will get to do this a couple of times a week through January.

Right now I’m feeling great. We are getting into life here. You most definitely do not get to do this stuff on the typical Federation Missions or the commercial tours (in fact, I’m sure the government would rather not have American tourists wandering around back alleys in sketchy neighborhoods). But Liz is right, two months is not going to be long enough.

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