Charles Neville gives kids first lesson in funk

Saturday January 21, 2012

OTIS -- Charles Neville started his Friday morning with a monumental task: Conducting more than 50 kindergarten and first- and second-graders in a rhythmic music lesson at Farmington River Elementary School.

"You must've practiced a lot because you're pretty good," Adriana Ciccotelli, a first-grader in Judy Lander's class, told Neville.

Neville smiled widely, gave the youngster a slight bow, and said, "Thank you."

Music teacher Kim Chirichella said most of the children had no clue that the 73-year-old man before them was the saxophone player for the acclaimed internationally touring R&B group The Neville Brothers.

"I told [the students], I'm star-struck today. I think they're excited because I'm excited," Chirichella said.

Neville led two workshops at the school on Friday, which was made possible through a grant from Arlene Tolopko, president of the Otis Cultural Council and her members. When he's not touring, Neville spends much of his time in the Berkshires. He will give a free public talk at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m.

On Friday morning, Neville spoke to the school's youngest children about music and rhythms. Chirichella has been teaching the students clave rhythms and the popular New Orleans song "Iko Iko," also known as "Jock-a-Mo." All the students watched film clips and listened to songs like "Sister Rosa" (about Rosa Parks) in class.

"It was nice to see him in real person instead of just on a screen," said first-grader Matthew O'Brien.

The schoolchildren also worked with art teacher Laura Catullo to produce large-scale, jazz-inspired murals.

The older students worked in their classes and also with technology teacher Laurie Flower to study the Chitlin' Circuit, a trail between Louisiana arching up to New York blazed by African-American musicians and other entertainers during the country's segregated, pre-Civil Rights Movement years. Flower introduced her students to the Google 3D SketchUp program, which allowed the kids to create architectural renderings based on photographs of known juke joints, roadhouses and barrelhouses on the Chitlin' Circuit.

Neville and his bandmates toured all the Chitlin' Circuit venues, which were considered safe places for African-Americans to play. The circuit is so-named after the soul food known as chitterlings or chitlin, which are pig intestines. Initially served to slaves in the U.S., the ingredient later became more widely used in southern cooking.

Farmington Elementary Principal Mary Turo lauded Neville's visit and said, "Children in Otis seldom have an opportunity to see such a famous performer and hear about the segregation from someone who has experienced it first-hand."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
or (413) 496-6239


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