Forgotten Albums: 3 Mustaphas 3, Heart of Uncle

When I began teaching assistant duties in the fall of 1987, the students in my two Calc I recitation sections were only about five years younger than I was. Whether that made the job easier or harder, well, you’ve got me. On one hand, even if I didn’t come from the Chicago suburbs like so many of them did, we stil had roughly the same popular culture references to draw upon. I could be their advocate as the need arose with the professor who ran the course and lectured three times each week. On the other, while I knew how to do first-semester calculus, that hardly meant I understood it well enough, or had enough experience with it, to help my charges better grasp course material during our Tuesday-Thursday Q&A sessions. Regardless, at least one of them must have had an okay experience: I ran into Dave occasionally around campus over the following couple of years, and in the spring of 1990, he invited me to join his fantasy baseball league (took 2nd place that year, and 3rd in 1991).

The following semester I was given complete charge of a trigonometry class. A valuable experience, but I struggled with having so much responsibility for the first time. The worst of it was determining final grades in borderline cases. After the semester ended, I received a lengthy, impassioned, typed letter from Kathleen, who’d wound up on the low end of such a decision. She and I had met in my office shortly after grades had been posted to talk about the situation, and her letter arrived in my departmental mailbox early the next week. The grade assigned had real world consequences; it would keep her from admission to the program of her choice in the College of Education. “I know this is what the numbers say but sometimes you have to look past the numbers, William, and take more of the student and the efforts into account…As students, we generally get what we deserve and we are well aware of this. In this situation, however, I do not feel that I have gotten what I deserve.” It was a very close case, and to this day I’m unconvinced I did the right thing by electing not to change Kathleen’s grade.

My remaining assignments as a TA were, with one exception, second-semester calculus. In the fall of 1988, I had two sections, taught back-to-back. This was the only time I wasn’t teaching in Altgeld Hall, the math building; instead, I was in Henry Administration, just south of Altgeld. Calc II is a fun class to teach, assuming you’re into that whole calculus thing to begin with. In my experience, though, it tends to be the hardest course in the sequence for students–determining which integration technique to use or which convergence test to apply to an infinite series can definitely be a challenge the first time through. I think my confidence (as well as my ability to explain) was on the rise by this time. I do still have the notes I made more than thirty years ago, and I continued to reference them with some frequency in my first decade or so on the job.

Kathy was in my first section that fall. A few weeks into the term, she asked me to attend an “invite a teacher to dinner” function her sorority was hosting at its house on a Friday evening. For someone who hadn’t imbibed of Greek life as an undergrad, this was an opportunity I felt I shouldn’t miss, and it turned out to be plenty interesting.The women of the sorority broke into singing a couple of times, and quite a number of fellows from a frat dropped by mid-event (I have no idea if this was expected or not) to start a back-and-forth songfest. However, this wound up being the last time I saw Kathy, as she dropped the class the following week.

I had a high school student in the other section. Kie was a senior at Uni High, a small, selective school located on campus–perhaps one or both of her parents were professors. Not terribly surprisingly, she was among the very best students in the class. She was also the most curious and inquisitive, occasionally staying after class to ask about generalizations or extensions of an example or a topic. Over the course of the semester, I learned that Kie was precocious in more ways than just mathematically. Altgeld Hall has a carillon in its tower; it normally just chimes every quarter-hour, but during the week there’s a daily fifteen-minute “show” right before noon. Kie provided that entertainment on Thursdays, and once I climbed up into the tower with her to watch her maneuver what looked like organ pedals (but were at hand level). She also had a weekly show at WEFT, Champaign-Urbana’s community radio station. I tuned into it once or twice. Her musical interest at the time was dub poetry, which has its origins in reggae.

(And now, an abrupt transition after that long intro…) I’m pretty certain it was on WEFT–maybe on the show right after Kie’s, maybe several weeks later–that I first learned of the wildly creative 3 Mustaphas 3. A collective of musicians in the UK, their conceit was they came from the Balkans and were all nephews (and a niece) of the fictitious Patrel Mustapha. They played a dizzying array of instruments, sang in a multitude of languages, and mashed together musical influences from all over the globe in an onslaught of rhythms, tempos, and time signatures. The group’s catchphrase–“Forward in All Directions!”–sums things up pretty well.

Eventually I came across the Mustaphas’ 1989 release Heart of Uncle at the Urbana Free Library, and my officemate Paul ripped it onto a cassette for me (fear not, I eventually bought a copy of the CD). I don’t have much “world music” in my collection, but Uncle is one of the most fascinating and entertaining disks I own.

Things kick off with “Awara Hoon,” sung in Hindi:

One of my favorites is the rollicking “Trois Fois Trois (City Version).” This time we’re treating to vocals in French and Spanish. It’s reprised in a ‘Country Version’ later on the album.

Several of the tracks are instrumental; I’ll embed two of them for you. First is “Sitna Lisa,” which combines elements of Celtic and Middle Eastern music.

Next is “Vi Bist Du Geveyzn Far Prohibish’n?” It’s a spirited piece that only becomes more frenzied as it builds.

“Kem Kem” is sung in Kiswahili with some beautiful harmonies.

The one tune sung in English is “Taxi Driver (I Don’t Care).” It’s pretty tame in comparison to most of the other songs.

And I’ll wrap up with the riveting and haunting “Aj Zadji Zadji Jasno Sonce,” sung in Macedonian.

As it turns out, back in Kentucky, my college roommate James and his wife Amy independently discovered the Mustaphas via their even more eclectic 1990 album Soup of the Century. That disk turned out to just about be it for 3M3–an outtake/remix album ensued, as well as a live album several years later. Maybe they felt that the string had just played itself out on this venture, and they were ready to move to other pursuits. Regardless, it’s a ride I’m glad to have found and taken.

One of the great things about teaching college is the ongoing opportunity to meet a wide range of promising young adults. That continued of course at Illinois after the fall of 1988–I still recall a number of students specifically, and wonder how things turned out for them–but for some reason, the moments you carry around in your head for years afterward happened less frequently after those initial semesters in the classroom. (I think I tend to have stronger memories of students from my first years at Georgetown, too, for what that’s worth.)

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