Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Teaching Trololo

Like so many of my students, I am a sucker for viral YouTube videos. One that has been making the rounds recently is of a Soviet-era guy lip syncing a cheesy song with no lyrics.

YouTube is not blocked in our school, so I must have heard this 30 times last week. Most viral stuff is fun fluff. Good for a laugh and it is on to the next thing. This one seemed a little different, though. This wasn't created to give teenagers something to laugh about and imitate (albeit screamingly funny to see our biggest linebacker "trololo" out the door). To add fuel to the viral fire, Mashable had just posted that Russian Singer’s “Trololo” Meme Gets an iPhone App! One student said "Dude - this is my new ring tone!"

A student asked "Who the heck is this guy?" An excellent question that prompted an exhilarating teachable moment. The hunt was on for the back story. A group of students jumped online and together and we were off on a tour of history.

The Week in Viral Video is a great portal for new videos getting a surge in hits, and gives a little background. It is a really valuable tool for keeping current with the next potential viral video and gain perspective on one that is currently popular. (A friend in my social network told me about this one. Thanks, Lisa!)

The performer, Edward Anatolevich Hill, is a highly honored Soviet-era performer, and the song I am so happy to finally be back home (like a "worm in your ear" as one YouTube comment said) was easily recognizable during  that time.  The musical style is vokaliz, in which the singer uses no words, only sound.  It is analagous to scat in vocal jazz, in which nonsense syllables are used instead of words, with the goal of turning the human voice into a pure instrument. Placed in context this is more than a viral video. It had meaning to the Soviet audiences of the time. Another version performed by the Azerbaidzhani singer Muslim Magomaev in a film from the early 1960s, The Blue Spark, and which Soviet audiences would have been very familiar with, is embedded below:

The really compelling part is the performer's name. Edward Hill. How did this English name show up with honors, medals, and tra-la-las in the Soviet Union?  The source article (Justin Erik Halldor Smith) has one intriguing sentence: "As for the peculiar name, I could find no information, but imagine that he is descended from the English elite that had established itself in western Russian cities by the 17th century."

The English Civil War (1641-1651) was a seismic shift for post-Elizabethan England. This was the era of the dashing yet doomed cavalier, and the short version is that a sizeable contingent of elites fled England and resettled in Russia. What happened to the English who took flight after the execution of Charles I? Could this be how Edward Hill came to be a star of the Soviet era? How ironic that they fled to a land that would soon be collectivized.

Digging around a little further and there was a revealing interview from August, 2009, where Edward Hill is referred to as Edward Gil. Of course, none of us could read Russian, but with help from Google Translate we got a pretty good version in English. Hill/Gil believes "Gil - the Spanish name. There's even a play "Don Gil - green pants." My ancestors came from Smolensk, the grandfather of the Berezina. Near Brest station is Tevli, there's plenty Hiley live.  Perhaps a Spaniard who was wounded during the retreat of Napoleon's troops remained on the Berezina.  The name of the Gil I have met in Latin America, Portugal, Europe, Sweden and Russia - everywhere.  And I traveled a lot."

A doomed cavalier fleeing post-Elizabethan England? A Spaniard left behind after Napoleon's retreat? All we know for sure is that Edward is an honored artist and more than a cheesy viral video.

What a rich, rewarding, fascinating experience it was, poking around history in this way. Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, JSTOR (yes, an academic source mixed in with social media) were guides. And yet how many of these are filtered by schools? YouTube is arguably the greatest archive of digital media the world has ever known. The best, the worst, the trivial, pornographic, mundane, historic, moronic, genius - a vast digital, searchable collection of global human achievement. And it is free.

The students and faculty in my high school are blessed with minimal Internet filtering. YouTube is not blocked. In our learning commons I have the luxury of being able to use these platforms to teach students research skills using a symphonic approach that includes social media. Our teachers use YouTube as an extension of the textbook for historic speeches, science and math content, foreign language classes, and even aggregating uploaded student video projects. (Many teachers use SafeShare to crop YouTube videos to remove ads and distracting sidebar images.)

I learned a lot, thanks to Edward Hill, and so did our students. Aside from the history of the English Revolution of 1640, Marxist interpretations of this era and a smattering of the Napoleonic War, we learned the value of looking behind the viral video, musical vocabulary from a different time, building context, and the true wealth of social media.

It is time for research and information skills to go viral, and these days this includes social media and YouTube. I wish everyone strength in waging your own revolution against the filters.

As a final ode to vokaliz, Trololo cat:

The English Revolution 1640
Source: The English Revolution 1640;
Written: in 1940;
Published: by Lawrence and Wishart;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, 2002.

Photo Credit:
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
The Wounded Cavalier

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Blogger JS said...

Love It!

March 30, 2010 at 6:45 PM  

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