Three days ago I started teaching the girls in Kibera music.
On the first day, I think I talked too much and too fast. Lectures were hard to sit through at 14 years old, I remember. I asked for questions and answered as many as I could. We established what the girls wanted to learn; seven things that I hoped we’d make it through. We did an ice-breaking game, a little singing, theirs and mine, and that was pretty much it. I have never taught a class.
Day two, I chose to try two selections from our task list: to sing better, to learn songwriting. They learned to stand up straight, use their belly, their lungs to drive their volume. They comply with giggles and full-spirited attempts. We jam out on Paper Airplanes, a song of mine. They already know the chorus and join in whenever I get to it. After that, I analyzed some elements of songwriting, but I knew it was too much talk, not enough action. Its one thing to have someone say songwriting is easy when you try, but its another to do it. That problem made me think a lot.
So I brainstorm with Paul that evening and he’s totally cool with my idea to compose a song as a group. Engaging the students is what is most critical. My plan entails four groups of students, three to each compose a verse, one to compose a melody which I will assist with on guitar.
Luckily, today, day three, when my plan was to become real, Junae and Kate, Kenyan friends that wanted to see the class, came along. With three assistant teachers, the writing groups got some critical support while trying to write in English. (The question of English vs. Swahili came up, but even when I said it was their choice, they chose English.) The girls suggested many topics (exams, changing lives, poverty), but settled on one with unanimity: Love. We broke it down into three verses, with all the verses telling part of the story. The beginning verse would entail the start of love and admiration, the middle verse with the end of infatuation and the start of a serious relationship, and the end verse with marriage and happiness. The conclusion to the question “major or minor? happy or sad?” was “MAJOR!” Because of course, when you are talking about marriage, why wouldn’t you be happy? And with that, our goals were set.
Although I know that every group made an incredible effort, Junae, Kate and Paul walking the girls through a crash course in lyric composition, I feel the most amazing part of this story came from my group. Our method was somewhat freestyle and it was the fastest I’ve ever successfully written parts to any song with others. As the other three groups met and tried to write 4 lines each, hopefully with my suggested rhyme scheme A B A B, I sat down with my group, the largest, and realized that asking someone to sing/invent a line in front of the sub-group may not fly. Shyness. To remedy that, I chose a couple of chords. I asked one girl beside me to try singing a line and she did, albeit softly. We did a duet to show what we just wrote. I asked the other girl on the other side of me to sing another line and she did, also softly. I had her friend help out so the two would allow the group to hear what was just made. The base of our chorus was built on two lines of volunteered notes. Figuring that complex lyrics probably won’t help here, I asked for some lines about love and what was offered up was the line “I love you… forever”. Oh, they loved it! They repeated it about six times as they mulled it over and reveled in their notes. Chorus is done! Next came the verse. I chose the girl on my left to pick another girl to switch seats so that I could have another line of melody composed with one ear to my guitar and the other to the bashful voice of the next chosen composer. I played a chord and off she went. The ending was minor, but that was ok. We had another line of melody to go. We could still resolve it major and it could work with the chorus. So I asked this girl to select another girl to switch seats and finish off the verse. Almost the exact same result, and still minor resolution. Knowing that we needed to get back to the chorus, I helped to change the last couple of notes to a major chord ending. It could work!
I took to the front of the room, asked for the lyrics that were still being finished and read them aloud. Pretty good! Did they all rhyme? No. Did the rhyming lines go A B A B? No. Does it matter? No! The girls loved them! So I asked my group of singers to stand up and present our chorus and verse melodies. I asked for a leader and Claire volunteered to be the director. I gave her some quick pointers and we got singing. By the end, everyone joined in with the chorus. This was working!
At this point, we were running out of time. Paul and I had a critical engagement in another part of town, but luckily we had done all that composing in about 10 minutes. With only 10 minutes to go, I decided that I’d have to put the lyrics into our melody by myself. But I wasn’t doing it without help. So I had the girls sit and follow along on the choruses. I mashed out the words, some a little long, but managed to put the whole thing together, rhyming or not. The words ran through the melodies they gave me and each verse was followed by a chorus of twenty sopranos in unison. Thirty minutes was all it took to get the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy to write its first love song.
The title: “Love You Forever”.