Pagosa teacher plants deep musical roots

Senior year of high school was a pretty good time.

I always loved English and art, and those were classes I attended regularly, alert and with the enthusiasm of a budding English major and wannabe writer looking ahead to college, even though that would come some time later. For me, math and science was truly for the birds, and most days, once I got through English and art class, I could be found riding shotgun in Jon Wemple’s Chevy Malibu racing up Valley Brook Drive in Silver Spring, Md. screaming along to “Anarchy in the U.K.” on cassette.

Oh, Springbrook High School, had you offered classes in Americana, maybe your walls would have held me for a full day. There was no one like Pagosa Springs High School teacher Bob Hemenger back then, but he’s here now. Hemenger’s “Americana Project” is an elective music class that has students writing and performing original music as well as studying American roots music and its contributions to American culture.

Modeled after a similar class in a high school in Sisters, Ore., it has been supported by the Archuleta County School District Board and Administration, and offers a way to motivate students who may otherwise get frustrated with the standard offerings in most high schools.

“We foster a love and appreciation of music and the creative process. Simply put, we give them a chance to do their thing,” Hemenger said. “It’s very empowering. Self-expression and self-confidence are important outcomes of the class.”

The students will produce a concert Tuesday at the high school, featuring the Gypsy-folk band Caravan of Thieves.

“The students are involved with all aspects of producing the concert,” Hemenger said. “Everything from booking, promotion, articles, selling tickets and assisting a professional sound engineer.”

A selected few students also will perform as the opening act.

Caravan of Thieves is husband and wife Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni on guitar, vocals and various forms of percussion, along with Ben Dean on violin and Brian Anderson on bass.

They’ve gained many fans in the area from a handful of appearances at the two festivals that bookend the summer on Reservoir Hill. Their music is a colorful collection of originals and classics, a cross between Django Reinhart’s gypsy-jazz and mid-20th century swing music played by an acoustic rock band.

They’re just as adept at playing traditional gypsy-jazz music as they are covering rock classics by the Beatles, Michael Jackson or Queen, which they do, yet not always in the way Lennon, Jacko or Freddy Mercury meant them to be played.

Uniquely original, lively, upbeat and fun, the Thieves is a quick-witted vaudevillian sideshow that demands audience participation with the kind of sound one would expect to accompany a traveling medicine show.

The band also will teach a songwriting class at the high school and hold a performance at the Pagosa Springs elementary school.

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu.

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