“I was born in the wrong decade,” Laura Cheadle exclaims jealously for what may be the third time in less than an hour. The singer-songwriter handles her pint-sized guitar (“I’m weak,” she jokes), and her fingers slide across the strings, pressing on beloved chords she grew up listening to from the now-faded era of funk.
In the Multicultural Center of the Newman Center at 33rd and Chestnut streets, funk is not only present, but thriving in the musical palates of her audience, comprised of friends, fans and the students of Dana D’Angelo’s Honors course, “Funk: Everyone on the One.”
Cheadle’s discussion and performance is only one of the many riveting and interactive experiences D’Angelo’s class takes part in throughout the ten-week course, which is two-parts field trips and in-person lectures, and one-part online journals, discussions and listening exercises.
“If my kid were in college and I was paying for this, I’d be pissed,” Andy Macaleer, co-professor and founder of Stonegroove Records, said after Cheadle’s performance. It’s true – a course on funk is arguably not something one can easily utilize in today’s cultural context. Cheadle and her father/keyboardist J.S. Cheadle – who has backed the likes of artists from Jerry Butler and Teddy Pendergrass to Boyz II Men – agree: it’s a dying art. When Macaleer mentioned starting a course centered around his favored genre, however, D’Angelo, perpetually immersed in the teachings of business courses such as accounting and finance, jumped in feet-first, responding, “That sounds good, ya comin’?”
What began as a one-credit honors course last September grew this spring to become a rather popular three-credit elective (for honors students, still, but I hear that professors retain the authority to override this bar). The class examines the funk counterculture from a historical, economical and social perspective. Its students gain an appreciation and understanding for the dissipating art of funk and the legends it produced.
Accompanied by a drummer from the University of the Arts, Laura and J.S. Cheadle entertained a healthy crowd of students May 18 with an impromptu set list of original compositions and covers. When conversation between the songstress and students came to a standstill, J.S. broke out enthusiastically in rounds of “name that tune” on the keyboard, and Laura and her father started right into live performances of any song or artist mentioned by Macaleer, covering everything from “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps to “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder. Cheadle, who cites her greatest influences as “Stevie” and “Aretha,” belted out incredibly powerful and funk-infused original songs such as “Hey There Devil” and “Lay Me Down” in inescapably cool, sultry tones. Incredibly passionate and down to earth both in presence and performance, it’s no wonder Cheadle’s charisma and vocal chops have gotten her a summer tour and a record deal with Sony. She, J.S. and her older twin brothers will all be hitting the road for a 26-city tour, making 3 stops in Pennsylvania, playing The Sellersville Theater June 25, The Grape Room July 9 and Tin Angel Aug. 5.
Students of D’Angelo and Macaleer’s funk class have had a number of other opportunities to experience the funk genre outside of the classroom. Earlier in the term, all were hosted by WXPN’s David Dye during his radio show, “Funky Fridays,” where a disjunctive discussion was held whenever Dye was off-air. A few students were interviewed on the show about their class and Macaleer got to play a couple tracks of his own selection.
The class was also visited by Paula Chandler-Paramore of Soul Line Dancing, who gave students a participatory lesson in the grooving freestyle steps of the African-based dance style. May 20 found the class and some of their friends at the World Café Live Upstairs for local band Philly Gumbo’s show.
Guests are invited to join the class next Wednesday, from 5 to 6 p.m. in Matheson Hall, room 204 for a lecture by local band Breakwater’s Gene Robinson. Facilitators are hopeful that the class will run again in the fall. For information on the course, contact Dana D’Angelo at email@example.com.