Putting the Hip Hop in Hexameters

This is probably the sort of thing I’d be doing — if I were teaching this sort of thing (and had any skills in metre, which I don’t). Very interesting item from the New Haven Independent.

They started with an age-old dum-diddy-dum. They added snares and high-hats. Then Andrew Sweet and his students brought an ancient Roman poet into a modern Garage Band.

The millennia-crossing performance took place in Sweet’s 9th-grade Latin classroom at Foote School, a private K-9 school serving 490 kids in East Rock.

Sweet’s class was trying out the “hip-hop hexameter,” a method he devised to help kids grasp the tricky metrics of Latin poetry and commit the lines to memory. The invention won Sweet a $2,000 award from the ING Unsung Heroes Award for Innovative Teaching Program. Sweet was one of 100 winners across the country this year; he used the money to buy recording equipment for his students.

The hip-hop hexameter went on display last Thursday with live performances by a dozen kids in Sweet’s honors Latin class before their younger peers.

Sweet began class by rolling in a cart of Mac laptops. Each student grabbed her or his own.

They pulled open a program called GarageBand to finish mixing tracks.

Juliet Friedman, of Madison, explained the assignment this way: To start off the class, Sweet had sent out a baseline beat.

“Dum-diddy-dum-diddy-dum-diddy,” it began.

That’s the underlying meter of epic Roman poetry, she explained. Its official name is “dactylic hexameter,” or “heroic hexameter.”

Each dum-diddy is a “dactyl,” from the Greek dactylos, or finger. Just like an index finger, each dactyl has one long part followed by two short parts. Roman poetry uses six dactyls, hence the “hexameter.”

Sweet sent out the hexametric beat. Then students imported it into GarageBand and mixed their own tracks on top of it. Some sped it up. Others slowed it down. Some added snares and high-hats. Some went for a smooth and simple sound, others tended to the frenetic.

When they were ready, students got out a poem they had memorized in Latin class the previous year, the opening to Virgil’s Aeneid. The opening, an invocation to a muse, introduces the hero, Aeneas.

Latin poetry can be hard to read aloud, Sweet said. The meter is quantitative—it’s based on how long a syllable should last. In English, we have long and short vowels, but that refers to the shape of the sound, not to the length of time we say it. Sweet said even after spending years scanning Latin poetry for his PhD at Cornell University, he still found recitation difficult.

He said he got the idea for the hip-hop hexameter while he was reading Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. The dual rhythm of hip-hop—one rhythm set by the beat, another by the rapper’s words—seemed to him a lot like the dual rhythm of Latin poetry recitation, he said. In Latin, the dual rhythm comes from the meter, which sets the beat, and the performer, who reads words that riff on the meter, but don’t always match it exactly.

Hip hop seemed to be an “accessible, approachable and more true to ancient recitation.”

Sweet announced the class would be voting on two ballot questions:

1. “Whose beat you think is the phattest.”

2. Whose beat would be most helpful to 8th graders.

Sweet plans to have his students record themselves reciting poetry over the sound of the tracks they designed. The 8th-graders will use those tracks as study aides this year when they have to memorize the same lines, he said.

Students began their recitations shyly.

Kyle Gelzinis approached the task with more bravado.

“Gangster Kyle comin’ up again,” he announced. “Throw it down.”

Then he “threw down” the Latin words: “Arma virumque cano.”

(Translation: “I sing of arms and the man.”)

“Phat beat!” called out some kids after their peers rapped.

After every freshman had performed, freshmen took out pens and paper to vote on the “phattest beat” and the most helpful.

“Phat is spelled with a ‘ph,’ right?” asked Nate.

“When it’s about a beat, yes,” Sweet replied matter-of-factly.

Nate jotted down the spelling for the mid-‘90s word for “cool.” (“That’s the first time I’ve heard it,” he said.)

Nate (pictured) had given perhaps the most exuberant performance of the bunch. He said he enjoyed the session. There are “not a lot of classes you get to do a rap in.”

He said he listens to Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West, but they had no influence over his track. He just started with the heroic hexameter and laid a melody on top.

After class, Sweet pronounced the experiment successful.

He said by connecting Virgil to hip hop, he hopes students would begin to “feel the artistry of the poetry,” to “feel it as a living piece of art, instead of a static piece of art.”

He said he hopes the method makes it easier for kids to memorize Latin poetry. Kids will test out that theory next spring, when they participate in the COLT Poetry Recitation Contest.

They won’t be allowed to play their music as they perform. But if the beats stick, they can carry them in their heads.

The original item includes a video of the performances …

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