NPR

School's New Album Better Than A Bake Sale

In this day of budget shortfalls and cutbacks, many schools are trying to find ways to raise funds that improve on bake sales or car washes.

But it's hard to improve on what the East Village Community School in New York City has done.

The small arts-based public school has put together a CD, called "Songs From the East Village," a collection of songs, poems and stories that glorify the neighborhood's deep cultural heritage.

For information on how to purchase the album, visit their website.

Susan McKeown is a parent at the East Village Community School.  She's also a Grammy-winning vocalist. The CD-as-fundraiser was her idea -- she brought everyone together and saw the project through production.

"I looked around and realized how many professional musicians we had in the parent body who, like me, came to New York and settled down as immigrants," McKeown says.

The diverse backgrounds of the student population presented an opportunity for a truly unique album. "Belly a Belbool," a Baghdad playground song comes from two Iraqi siblings. The two went through a rough exodus from the capital city after the kidnapping of their father, a local advisor for the U.S. government. He was unharmed, but the two were not allowed out of their house for six months.

"Soldier, Soldier" was a song that came from Martha Kessler, head of the school's parent committee.

"It was a version from Martha, who's from the States but was born and grew up in England, learned up over there," McKeown says. "She brought it back to New York and taught it to her daughter, who made up a new ending."

Near the end of the album's production, the school's vice principal Bradley Goodman suggested McKeown add a Tibetan track, as the school had a number of students who emigrated from the region. They created the song "Snow," featuring a fifth grade boy who's recent enrollment was the first time he had attended a school.

"The characters that come through on the individual voices of the children make it like these little audio jewels," McKeown said. "That’s the way I wanted it from the beginning."

The singer-songwriter has yet to see the album's sales figures. She says the money raised will be earmarked towards the school's arts and language programs, a prime target for schools across the country looking to tighten their budgets.

"When the cutbacks come, the arts are the first to go," McKeown says. "And at our school, we believe a fully-rounded person is someone who has access to the arts as well as all the other subjects."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

In this day of budget shortfalls and cutbacks, many schools are trying to find ways they can raise funds that improve on bake sales or car washes. Well, it's hard to improve on what the East Village Community School in New York City has done.��

The small arts-based public school has put together a CD. It's called "Songs from the East Village," and it's a collection of songs, poems and stories that glorify the neighborhood's deep cultural heritage.

(Soundbite of song, "Echi Bu Uka Amaka")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: This song opens the CD. It's called "Echi Bu Uka Amaka." It's a Nigerian song that, like most of the selections on this album, was passed down from parent to child, brought from the homeland and given to a new generation.��

Susan McKeown is a parent at the East Village Community School.�She's also a Grammy-winning vocalist. The CD-as-fundraiser was her idea. She brought everyone together and saw the project through production. She joins us from our studios in New York.�

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. SUSAN MCKEOWN: You're so welcome. Thanks for having us, Scott.

SIMON: And we're also joined by Dhuha and Shams Al Fatlawi and their father, Muwafaq Al Fatlawi. They perform one of the songs on the CD.

Welcome to all of you.

Mr. MUWAFAQ AL FATLAWI: Thank you...

Unidentified Child #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Child #2: Thank you.

Mr. AL FATLAWI: ...very much for having us here.

SIMON: And, Susan McKeown, let me start with you. How'd you get the idea to put a CD together?

Ms. MCKEOWN: Well, I make CDs. That's what I do for a living. I've been producing my own. And when my daughter started at the East Village Community School, I realized when I looked around the room how many professional musicians we had in the parent body, who, like me, came to New York and settled as immigrants. So it seemed like a great way to celebrate New York and our diverse population in an oral way, our way, as you would with a camera and kind of shine the spotlight on each character.

SIMON: Dhuha and Shams - may I call you by your first names, by the way?

Unidentified Child #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Child #2: Yeah.

SIMON: OK. You are seven and ten years old?

Unidentified Child #1: Yeah.

SIMON: And you're from Iraq, right?

Unidentified Child #1: Yeah.

SIMON: Let's hear a bit of your song - correct my pronunciation if I'm off "Belly a Belbool."

Unidentified Child #1: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Belly a Belbool")

DHUHA and SHAMS: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: This is a great song.

Unidentified Child #1: Thank you.

SIMON: But what's the story of this song?

Unidentified Child #1: It's a story about a bird who didn't find his friend and who was, like, talking about his food. Yeah.

SIMON: I actually have the lyrics in front of me - or the English translation. Did you see a bird, eats from a bowl, milk and grass, on rose. You do it awfully beautifully. You really do.

Unidentified Child #1: Thank you.

SIMON: And Muwafaq - if I may call you Muwafaq...

Mr. AL FATLAWI: Yeah, that's fine.

SIMON: What's it like to hear your daughters singing this song?

Mr. AL FATLAWI: Hearing this song from Shams and Dhuha is so special for me here and for my wife, for all of us, because singing this song in New York after all the traumatic kind of environment that we had in Baghdad is kind of bringing hope to us that we are going to have a very, very new life here.

SIMON: Can you help us understand what you went through in Baghdad and what the contrast is now in the East Village?

Mr. AL FATLAWI: Yeah. In Baghdad, I worked for USAID - United State Agency for international development - as a local advisor. And because of that I was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2007 and accused of being a spy to the American government. And after that our life was destroyed totally. I mean, children were locked at our home for six months without leaving the home for one day. So here it's like moving from hell to heaven - to paradise.

SIMON: Susan McKeown...

Ms. MCKEOWN: Yes?

SIMON: ...let me ask you about a song here that - because you do have selections from Nigeria, Ireland, Iraq, Spain, France. Let me ask you about a song here that I think of as being British - "Soldier, Soldier."

Ms. MCKEOWN: That's right. This version comes from Martha Kessler, who's the head of the parents committee. And her daughter and my daughter and a number of the other girls are singing on it. But it was a version that Martha, who's born and grew up in England, learned over there. So she brought that back to New York and taught it to her daughter, who made up a new ending.

SIMON: Well, let's hear a little bit of the song first.

(Soundbite of song, "Solider, Solider")

Unidentified Child #3: (Singing) Oh, soldier, soldier, will you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum? Oh, no, sweet maid, I cannot marry you for I have no coat to put on. So off she went to her grandfather's chest and found him a coat of the very, very best. And the soldier put it on.

Unidentified Child #4: (Singing) Oh, solider, soldier, will you marry me...

SIMON: Now, let's go to the - do I refer to this as the post-feminist version? Let's listen in.

(Soundbite of song, "Solider, Solider")

Unidentified Child #4: (Singing) Oh, soldier, solider, will you marry me, with your musket and fife and drum? Oh, no, sweet maid, I cannot marry you for I have a wife of my own. So off she went to her grandfather's chest and pulled out a gun of the very, very best. And she chased him all around the town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCKEOWN: That's folk songs. You can make up your own endings. That's the way folk songs change and get handed down.

SIMON: Help us set up a lovely song from Tibet called "Snow."

Ms. MCKEOWN: Well, that was something that we hadn't expected to happen at all. And Bradley Goodman, who's the assistant principal, suggested to me when I was already almost finished recording - I had about 15 of the tracks in the can. And he said, you know, we have such an interesting Tibetan population. We have about five families from Tibet.

So we set the recording date. And he agreed to bring them all to the studio. We were going to order pizza. And when the session was over, somebody in the room said there's something else we'd like to do. And then Sonam(ph), who hadn't said a word at the time, walked into the vocal booth. And we didn't even close the vocal booth. Everybody just stood in the room. And Sonam started singing. And nobody made a sound.

And what I learned afterwards about him was that he had just come to our school last September, having walked out of Tibet over the Himalayas with his brother and his family. And for the first time in his life it was the first time he'd gone to school. And he came into the fifth grade.

So that's the story of Sonam and this song.

SIMON: Let's hear Sonam�Wancchen(ph) and "Snow."

(Soundbite of song, Snow)

Mr. SONAM�WANCCHEN: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: What an amazing story.

Ms. MCKEOWN: Yeah. What a gifted singer.

SIMON: Goodness gracious. Because this - this is a fundraiser, right?

Ms. MCKEOWN: Yes.

SIMON: So how's it doing vis-a-vis a bake sale?

Ms. MCKEOWN: I have no idea. We just released it. I don't know what the figures are. My friend had a theory. Because I don't cook, I don't bake, that I did this because I'm not a baker. I couldn't contribute to the cupcake aspect of the school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And may I ask what would the money be earmarked for?

Ms. MCKEOWN: For arts and language programs at the school. To continue, for example, the after school violin class for the second and third grade. Things like that. At our school, we believe that a fully-rounded person is somebody who's able to have access to the arts as well as all the other subjects.

SIMON: The CD is "Songs from the East Village." We've been speaking with Susan McKeown and some of the performers, including Dhuha and Shams and Muwafaq Al Fatlawi.�

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. MCKEOWN: Thank you.

Mr. AL FATLAWI: Thank you.

SIMON: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular