Monday, 20 August 2007

Just Talkin' 'bout Shaft

"Who knows Eye-zack Hay-zoo?" asks Teramoto-san, holding up a piece of paper and waving it around. The staff room is quiet; no one knows what he’s talking about.

"Black singer, spos’t be famous," Teramoto-san explains helpfully.

"Isaac Hayes," drones my fellow teacher Michael, not looking up from his Japan Times.

Teramoto-san moves swiftly over to Michael with his slip of paper, business in his eye. "You like Isaac Hay?"

Michael looks up at him, caution going down over his face like an awning over a shop window. "Uh no, not really."

"The Black Moses," I say, being an insufferable know-it-all. "Theme from Shaft – he got an Academy Award for the soundtrack back in the seventies."

Teramoto-san turns to stare at me, so I hum a little of the tune. "You know," I say, drumming my fingers on my desk: "Dun-dun-duh-dun-dun-duh-duh-DUN- dun." I do things like this all the time, can’t stop myself. I think it’s some kind of mild schizophrenia: part of me is horrified, part of me just has to do it.

Teramoto-san is on me in a flash. "You like?"

"I still have the album somewhere," I say, pounding in the last nail.

Two days later I'm sitting in a classroom, waiting for a businessman who wants to learn the Theme from Shaft. Isaac Hayes is an obsession of his, Yoshino-san, the school secretary has informed me. The man phoned Bright Horizons a few days ago, asking for private lessons with a teacher who knew – and better yet, liked – the music of Isaac Hayes. He’s going to be attending a convention in Chicago, and before he goes he is determined to have a party piece. A song, perfectly memorized, the pronunciation and delivery one hundred percent.

"He wants to sound like Isaac Hayes," said Yoshino-san, rolling her eyes. "He wants to go to a karaoke bar and sing the song exactly like Isaac Hayes in the movie." She hands me a tape with the Theme from Shaft on it and grins, shaking her head. "The things you gotta do, huh?" she says sympathetically.

I’ve been teaching English at Bright Horizons for a year now. During my time here I’ve been asked to put on a furry red and white Santa Claus hat and read Christmas stories to bored five-year-olds who barely understood a word of English; I’ve been obliged to accost shoppers in a mall by asking them their names in English, all the while wearing a sandwich board with the message LEARN ENGLISH NOW AT BRIGHT HORIZONS!; I’ve judged a speech contest at a convalescent home; I’ve presided over a spelling bee for ten-year-olds; I’ve looked at the ‘poetry’ of retired airplane mechanics. I’ve taught my fair share of songs too: My Way and Long and Winding Road being especially popular with Japanese businessmen. But there’s a first time for everything, and this is the first time I've had to teach anybody the Theme from Shaft.

I have a few problems with this. First of all, I’m not really a music teacher. Secondly, I’m not a guy. Thirdly, I’m identifiably Caucasian. Accordingly, I'm not the least bit confident about teaching someone the Theme from Shaft, no matter how well I may know it.

Ushio-san turns out to be a slight, bespectacled fellow in his thirties. He speaks hesitant but grammatical English and is anxious to hear what I think about the genius of Isaac Hayes, his music and his artistic vision. Worrying that my Isaac Hayes credentials may be found lacking, I tell him the truth: that I liked the music well enough to buy the album, and that I particularly enjoyed the song 'Soulsville.' Ushio-san’s eyes light up and he begins to quote in a tremulous, reedy voice: Black and bad / Born free / I guess that’s the way / it’s supposed to be… I listen to him, spell-bound. He’s got it memorized! True, his pronunciation could use a little work, but this man is passionate about Isaac Hayes. He has something that every teacher dreams of finding in a student: motivation. This might not be the nightmare I’ve been dreading after all!

"Okay, then," I say, having already listened to the Theme from Shaft some eight times today, "The first line’s got a really quick, rapid-fire delivery, and it’s crucial to get it right." Ushio-san licks his lips nervously and nods as I pop the tape into the machine and we wait through the long instrumental introduction, for the moment where Isaac Hayes starts off with his one-tone monologue.

If you’re not familiar with the Theme from Shaft, let me tell you that even if you’ve never seen Isaac Hayes, who is a large, powerful-looking black man, when you hear the song you just know that it’s someone like him who’s singing. You don’t for one minute imagine the guy is going to look anything like me, for instance. Or like Ushio-san, for that matter. Great. I have to teach a Chihuahua how to bark like a German Shepherd.

Ushio-san grasps a Styrofoam cup in his hand, a pretend mike. Who’s the black private dick acts like a sex machine with all the chicks? booms Isaac Hayes from the tape recorder, Ushio-san singing along earnestly with the music in a clear, though reedy, tenor. He manages to start almost on time – Whoozuh black ply butt – but he garbles the words in his nervousness and cannot finish. Tongue-tied, he peters out before he manages to finish up with "all the chicks."

I don’t know why he’s picked this song to sing; it is by far the hardest one. I point out the difficulties as politely as possible and ask Ushio-san if we can’t do something else instead – something easier. But he is quietly insistent: it’s got to be Shaft. Next time he'll bring a special tape with the musical accompaniment and chorus. It’ll be okay, he assures me – he knows he can do it – all he has to do is practice. I have grave reservations, but he’s the boss here. So we continue.

By the end of our first session, we have managed to get through some two dozen thoroughly dreadful renditions of Theme from Shaft. I’ve never been so tired of a song in all my life, and I am someone who’s heard My Way more times than I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ushio-san looks happy, though, like a man who’s well on the way to getting what he wants. "Before I leave" he says eagerly, "Can you record for me? Saying the words slowly, so that it is easier for me to follow them, to enunciate them properly."

His hour is up and I feel spectacularly ridiculous, but I do this for him. I record – slowly – the Theme from Shaft, enunciating it carefully, as he begs me to do, instead of singing it.

If you should ever want to feel ridiculous for whatever reason, I strongly suggest that you do the same thing. Slowly recite the words to the Theme from Shaft and see how far you can get before your ears start to burn. Mercifully, there aren’t that many words in the song. I am seconds from the end when the door whips open and my colleague Michael is standing there, gaping at us.

"Shaft, eh?" he says later, grinning like a maniac. "Who’s the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? Hah! What a way to earn a crust, eh?" he gloats. Last year Michael had to dress up as a wolf in a pink tutu at an Easter party for pre-schoolers. I refrain from reminding him of this, however, and pretend as though I didn’t hear him.

The thing about Ushio-san wanting to be able to sing like Isaac Hayes – part of me understands. I remember watching Swan Lake at the age of eight and desperately wanting to be one of those ballerinas, effortlessly flitting about the stage, elegant, tiny, coordinated. I was a great awkward klutz of a child with two left feet, but in my heart I wore a tutu and had a neat, graceful little body. So part of me understands – really – but part of me also thinks that at some point in one’s adult life, these absurd fantasies are best laid to rest. I’ll never be a ballerina, never look good in a tutu. Ushio-san isn’t going to sound like Isaac Hayes no matter how hard he practices. I’ve buried my fantasy, wiped the dirt off my hands, done my grieving for what I yearned for but could not have. So why can’t he?

A few months go by. The Russian flu sweeps through Yokohama and I am unable to continue Ushio-san’s Shaft lessons for the better part of a month. Several times, though, he calls me at work to ask a question or two about pronunciation. He’s practicing hard, he assures me, making good progress. I express polite interest and encourage him, but groan inwardly.

Before Ushio-san goes to Chicago, he invites me to hear him performing his song in front of a group of friends and co-workers in a karaoke bar. I’ve been asked to come along to lend moral support. My heart is sinking: how I wish I could dissuade this poor man from making an ass out of himself in front of all those people!

Ushio-san mounts the stage with a practiced nonchalance that belies the terror I know he is feeling. Grasping the mike, he leers out at the crowd as the opening chords blast from the speakers, waiting for his entrance.

Who’s the black private dick acts like a sex machine with all the chicks? he croons manfully. No, he isn’t Isaac Hayes, nowhere near. But it’s a perfect delivery, the timing just right, his voice as rich and deep and velvety as he can make it. I’ll bet he’s practiced this three, four hundred times, easily. Who’s the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? he continues earnestly, his eyes sweeping the audience.

Shaft! I sing out, bursting with pride.


Carole said...

Great, great story. It is always amazing what drives people to do things. But if a person is driven to sing the theme song of Shaft, I can't think of a kinder teacher. Because the best thing is--you see the heart, the desire, the longing instead of just a man doing karaoke.

Eryl Shields said...

What a great job! One thinks of teaching English as a bit staid, holding up a pen and repeating the word over until the student gets it, that sort of thing. But going about dressed in a tutu or sandwich-board and teaching someone to sing the theme tune from Shaft! Sounds great.

I also love the attitude of your student. That he wasn't going to let a little thing like not being anything at all like Issac Hayes get in his way. I need a bit of his confidence.

DaviMack said...

Such hope and brightness.

I believe that other cultures focus upon different things, somehow, than Western cultures: it's perfectly acceptable to have done something as well as you could, rather than to have lived up to some "objective" concept of good, at least in certain circumstances. That understanding of where to draw the line ... is somewhat lacking, perhaps, and I'm glad that Ushio-san could be happy.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I'm not sure how kind I was to him, but at least I never burst out laughing. We had some pretty close calls, but I always managed to keep a straight face. But yes, I did see the longing in him -- honest, it would have been hard for anyone to miss.

Eryl -- I made up the part about the sandwich board! Another woman I knew had to do that; I categorically refused. I did have to accost people at a shopping mall, and I just hated that. But I did appreciate Ushio-san's attitude and have always remembered how conscientious he was about doing things just so.

Davimack -- I lived in Japan for seventeen years, during which time I was always amazed by the Japanese tendency to perfectionism. Everything had to be just so, and any deviation from this often caused real panic and concern. But Ushio-san's triumph was all the greater in my eyes because he started off so far from the mark and was so determined.

Eryl Shields said...

What, no sandwich-board? I'm devastated!

Brian said...

Great story.

God's blessing and curse on tape recorders. I used them to learn several of my acting roles and got thoroughly tired of listening to my own voice.

Praise be I could use typed out flash cards as well.

I even used pre-recorded speeches to help out students with the odd tricky vocal role -- in pausing particularly--but at least I did not have to sing for them. That would have been more than just offputting for them.

A useful teaching tool, but .......


Kim Ayres said...

Brilliant story and superb piece of writing, Mary.

Sara said...

"If you should ever want to feel ridiculous for whatever reason, I strongly suggest that you do the same thing." I know you can't hear it, but I'm LOL.

I taught English in Japan, too, on Okinawa. One kids' class and one of adult "conversation" to three businessmen. The last was easy...I just brought in cool articles to discuss or we played word games. I have no idea if they learned anything, and thank the Lord no one asked me to sing. My husband did get up on stage once and lead a whole bar in Thailand in a rendition of Country Roads.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- No sandwich board! The shopping mall was humiliating enough. One guy really did have to put on a tutu, though; I didn't make that up.

Brian -- I loathed using tape recorders in the classroom, but they really could save your voice in a big lecture hall. I once had to teach a class of 120 with a bad case of laryngitis (I had it, not them, that is) and I don't think I could have made it without a tape recorder. But reading out the lyrics for the Theme from Shaft, I felt as though I was in a Monty Python sketch.

Kim -- Coming from you that is such a compliment, so thank you!

Sara -- Thank you for visiting my blog, and I am happy to have a fellow English teacher from Japan around! I tend to write a lot about Japan and would love hearing your Japanese stories too.

Kanani said...


I LOVED that soundtrack.
I listening to it over and over again as a kid...
I was the outcast of the sixth grade for even knowing what it was.
Truthfully, no one can sing Shaft like Isaac Hayes, just like no one will ever lead the Love Unlimited Orchestra like Maurice White.

Anyway, hilarious story. I can just see you trying to be so polite teaching them those words, that swagger. Too bad you couldn't find any bling to help put them in the mood!

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I still know every word, every bit of that song -- and I know just when to come in, too. And you are right: nobody can sing it like Isaac Hayes. And remember those chains? Bless his heart, Ushio-san could never have managed the chains! Glad he didn't try to; that would have tipped me right over the brink.

debra said...

Great story and great description! I am still chuckling.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Debra. I didn't spot this comment until weeks after you posted it -- sorry!