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Now that's what I call TEFL!

When a Tunisian teacher decided to use pop to teach his class English, Ali Catterall was happy to raid his record collection. Then he realised how pretentious and incomprehensible a lot of it was ...

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reddit this Ali Catterall The Guardian, Saturday 23 April 2005 Article history

Coldplay's Chris Martin got the ok for Ali Catterall's tape. Photograph: PA

Three times a year, like some plucky Edwardian explorer, my widowed mother goes globetrotting. Recently, she went to Tunisia and became pally with a schoolteacher called Hamadi, who teaches English to a class of teenagers based in Nefta, a small town in the south. The last time she was there, she offered to make him a tape of western pop music, to help introduce his pupils to the English language. "I'll ask my son to do it," she said. "He's got lots of records." Back home in England, she outlined the project. "Just stick some Bob Marley on it," she said, followed by the immortal words, "It's got a good beat." Mentally, I appointed myself Britain's chief cultural ambassador for cool. Nefta was about to get a dose of the best, most subversive music the west had to offer - it would be like another Velvet Revolution! However, there were some strict criteria. As Hamadi wanted to teach British-accented English, the vocals were to carry no American inflections, which ruled out a mighty back catalogue and Elvis Costello. Further, they should feature clear, unaffected voices, singing simple and not overly produced tunes with, yes, "a good beat". And, crucially, they were to contain no contentious lyrics - no references to sex, drugs or religion. Tricky, I thought, as I began making the tape. Five hours later, the task seemed closer to impossible. My aim was to avoid patronising Hamadi's pupils, but nor did I want to bamboozle them with convoluted lyrics, messy melodies and grandiose arrangements. Songs and artists I'd cherished for years suddenly became worthless; some of the best music I had to offer was often the worst for the job in hand. Time and again I felt

like shouting, "Why aren't you pronouncing your 't's and 'd's, you lazy tyke?" Or, "You, boy - speak up, stop slurring!" Vocalists I had assumed would be ideal turned out, on closer listening, to be utterly unsuitable. Those exquisite crooners from the 1940s and 50s (the Al Bowllys and Ella Fitzgeralds) either sounded far too mannered, like Harry Enfield's Mr CholmondleyWarner, or too jazzy by half. Eva Cassidy's take on Over The Rainbow may be among the most exquisitely rendered versions of the tune - but what happened to that tune? Many contenders lost out because their vocals were buried too low in the mix, a problem I encountered again and again. Others had a tendency to slur or swallow words. John Martyn's May You Never sported an ever-lazier vocal as the song progressed, while a deliberately cussed delivery meant that a good lyricist such as Thom Yorke, and a genius one such as Shane MacGowan, were throttling their lyrics. If I couldn't make out individual words, why should non-English speakers have to? Squeeze, Ian Dury and Jarvis Cocker passed the comprehensibility test, but their subject matter - Squeeze's "nasty little rashes" - was off. As was Nick Cave, whose secular hymn Into My Arms begins, "I don't believe in an interventionist God". Folk songs proved highly dangerous: you couldn't pass a greenwood tree without stumbling across some incidence of incest, adultery or infanticide. As June Tabor sings in her version of the ballad The Cruel Mother, "She took a knife so keen and sharp she pierced it though each tender heart." Out, too, were the impeccably British tones of Nick Drake (too feathery). Even the Beatles - the Beatles! - initially failed the grade, due to Lennon's and (especially) Macca's irritating aping of the US accent: "Remember to ledder intaya har, then you can star, to maig eeyid bedder." George, I decided, was just too nasal. In fact, only Ringo retained his British accent throughout. As for Imagine, perhaps the worst song ever written in the English language, I just didn't have the heart. Still, Yellow Submarine was in - a breakthrough of sorts. But I still had a way to go. I was starting to get desperate. Was I really going to resort to Coldplay? Sting? The former boasted hummable hooks and Chris Martin's clear vocals, but lyrically the experience was akin to being hosed down with wet brie. Sting, meanwhile, was in a class of his own when it came to pretension. In the end I settled on Fields Of Gold, which fulfilled the criteria -

just. (Although who knows what to make of "You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky/As we walk in the fields of gold"?) The creeping, dreadful realisation that this wasn't going to be a tape that reflected my musical taste - although listeners would suppose it was what I was all about - was becoming too much to bear. I was turning into a hapless peddler of the blandest MOR and, worse, I was endorsing it for educational purposes. Already, I heard the sniggers from Hamadi's students: "The Englishman is a massive Julie Andrews fan!" I had limits. I stopped short of Dido and Natasha Bedingfield. And so it continued for hours, pressing play and record in good faith before furiously tearing out the tape a minute into a song. I love you, Shane MacGowan, but honestly . . . By the time my mother left for Tunisia, however, I had come up with a workable playlist: 23 songs chosen for their unaffected vocals and properly pronounced vowels. Mum's initial suggestion of Bob Marley and other reggae artists was bang on the money, Marley being cleaner in his enunciation than many of his British counterparts - hence the inclusion of Redemption Song. The Smiths were a shoo-in, Morrissey's perfect diction tantamount to a political stand. Abba, Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens provided easyto-learn singalongs, while Suggs pretty much talks himself through a set - handy. The Kinks' Days, sung by the peerless Kirsty MacColl, introduced a bit of credibility. John Cale's I Keep A Close Watch was chosen for its heartbreaking simplicity and the author's pure, meditative vocal. I subsequently regretted not including more female vocalists, such as Maddy Prior and Kate Rusby, but in the end I was happy with about 75% of my compilation. Mum took the tape and sat in on Hamadi's singing classes. She reports that the pupils picked up the first two songs very quickly, and especially enjoyed Rod Stewart's Sailing. Three students recorded Abba's I Have A Dream on to their mobile phones. Hamadi says he wants a lyric sheet - and, next time, some Eminem. The playlist Side 1 Sailing (Rod Stewart), I Have A Dream (Abba), Do Re Mi (Julie Andrews), Morning Has Broken (Cat Stevens), Yellow Submarine (the Beatles), It Must Be Love (Madness), The Scientist (Coldplay), Fields Of Gold (Sting), Days (Kirsty MacColl), Waterloo Sunset

(the Kinks), I Keep A Close Watch - live version (John Cale), A Heart Needs A Home (Richard and Linda Thompson) Side 2 Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand), Say Hello Wave Goodbye (Soft Cell), Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (the Smiths), Elegant Chaos (Julian Cope), Dirty Old Town (the Pogues), Rivers Of Babylon (the Melodians), Rudy, A Message To You (Dandy Livingstone), Everything I Own (Ken Boothe), Redemption Song (Bob Marley and the Wailers), The Prayer (Beshara), Beautiful Cosmos (Ivor Cutler).