Recently my nine-year- old son got into a bit of a shouting match with one of my neighbours. My son loves to use his bike to jump the curbs of driveways, and on this particular day he was using my neighbour’s curb to do just that. The neighbor was apparently quite upset about this and started yelling at my son, who was left a little traumatized by this experience (quite similar to how my neighbor felt once I was through with him). While not the most pleasant affair, this little incident reminded me about something that happened many years ago when I was working in a group home for adolescent boys. And I haven’t stopped laughing, so I thought I would share that story in my column this month.
One of the boys in our home was a 14-year-old originally from Oman. He had a very long name that to this day I can’t really spell or reproduce with any sense of doing it justice. It was something like Efrahimbenabdul…; in order to avoid mispronouncing his name, we just called him Ef, and he was very fond of being called this. His best buddy in the home was another 14-year-old boy originally from Hong Kong, and his name was much shorter: Yu. There is an obvious linguistic coincidence associated with this pairing of boys, and we were all very aware of this but worked hard to not acknowledge it in overt ways.
Ef and Yu were enthusiastic musicians, however, perhaps due to a lack of opportunity they never really had had the chance to practice their talents. In an effort to promote their interests, one of my colleagues at the time, himself a musician, had brought in an old drum set as well as a trumpet for the boys to use. As one might imagine, drums and trumpets are an odd pairing of instruments. With the exception of some pretty sophisticated jazz, there are few music genres where these two instruments go well together, particularly if the players of the instruments are, to be polite, terrible. As a team, however, we really believed that what makes the boys happy is therapeutically useful, and therefore we withstood the horrendous noise and unpleasant sounds, and even resolved to ensure the other youth were taken on outings while Ef and Yu practiced their music. And practice they did; before long, they had a band name, and unlike us, they didn’t hesitate to utilize the obvious linguistic coincidence of their names.
Over time, we had all grown rather fond of this band in our midst, and we shielded and protected them from any negative feedback (of which there was no shortage). The band even gave performances to the other youth in the house, and their enthusiasm blinded them sufficiently not to notice that everyone in the audience was wearing a hat (under which cotton was stuffed in the ears). It was, therefore, a glorious morning when the band announced that they were ready to record their first single, which was to be called ‘Hot Knife Brothers’ (a reference to a popular method for the consumption of hashish at the time; sadly, the development of flat top stoves has rendered this method impractical). The song itself might reasonably be characterized as ‘early hip hop’, although it was neither very hip nor did it lend itself to hopping. Nevertheless, we applauded wildly and enthusiastically when we first heard it, although our enthusiasm did wane somewhat as the boys practiced it over and over again in preparation for the recording.
Eventually the song was indeed recorded and it quickly became the most played song on the house stereo. I am not entirely sure what it was, but the song did have its charm, given the extensive drum solos followed by the nuanced trumpet notes significantly tempered by the acoustics of blowing air without quite generating very much sound.
As it turns out, not everyone loved the song, especially when played at full volume ten to fifteen times per day. Our neighbor, a rather profane man who was already very unhappy with our presence in the neighbourhood, frequently complained about the excessive noise coming from our house. We tried in vain to explain to him that this was hardly just noise, but rather an expression of the artistic talents of disadvantaged children (admittedly, we had to hold back the grins as we gave this explanation). One day, as the neighbor once again was at our door complaining loudly, the band members happened to overhear his rant and made their way to the door to respond in kind. Just as they were about to comment, the neighbor squinted his eyes and hissed a rather aggressive and entirely uncalled for ‘Fuck You’ at the band, whereupon he abruptly turned and walked away.
In my experience, kids don’t respond very well to being sworn at by neighbours, and often will up the ante and engage in major conflict. While we were prepared for this, we were quite amazed by the response of the band. Far from wanting to up the ante, they were devastated that the neighbor lacked appreciation for their masterpiece. What could he possibly not like about this wondrous song, this ballad about the vulnerability and resilience of youth, this forerunner of what was to become by far the most popular and commercially successful music genre in the history of mankind? In the face of this all-encompassing criticism on the part of the neighbor, they resolved to do the only thing that made sense: they went to work to make a sequel.
And they worked hard. Countless combinations of drum solos and trumpet intrusions were experimented with; vocals were inserted before, over and immediately after the crescendo of instrumental volume, and the poetry of lyrics was refined to relate the utmost of emotion as the song climaxed with a description of the abandonment of hot knives in favour of the pipe. The song was recorded swiftly, and we were all getting our hats on ready for the world premier, when to our surprise, the band appeared with the cassette neatly wrapped in blue toilet paper (nowadays we understand why toilet paper is best left un-coloured). The band wasn’t interested in our feedback. They understood that the route to commercial success required them to convince their fiercest critic. They were going to present our neighbor with the sequel so that he too could understand their depth of talent.
We were so proud of the band. Two kids from far away places, embarking on the difficult and winding road to rock ‘n roll stardom. Two kids with a dream, and they were not going to be deterred by an early experience of negative feedback. Clearly we had under-estimated them. These kids were going to make it. Attached to the wrapped cassette was a card; this is what it said:
Dear Neighbour: This is for You!
Ef Yu 2