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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: Hello, friend!

Welcome to the library. What’s that you say? You’re not in a library? Au contraire, my good reader. While you may not literally be in a library, you are currently an inhabitant of the library of my mind.

What’s that? You are in Shields? Ah, then my friend, defying all traditional rules of space and time, you are in two libraries simultaneously. Congratulations to you.

But the library I want to talk about is a metaphorical one. It is the space in my head where I keep the odd trivia, perplexing theories and quirky data that I have collected in my adventures in academia. It’s warm in my brain-library, and quiet too. Pull up a chair. Would you like some tea?

Here’s my deal. I’m interested in everything and an expert in nothing. In this column, I would like to share that superficial and strange information in a non-intimidating way. We spend all day in classes with brilliant academics who seem to be competing for the driest presentation possible. Quick, how many times in an hour-and-20-minute class do you check your watch? Is it 120 times? I bet it is.

So why not take a little time each week to hear about our wonderful world from a non-credentialed and under-informed weirdo?

After all, learning is fun. Philosophy is fun, history is fun, chemistry and quantum physics and fluid mechanics are fun, fun and fun. You just have to look at them the right way.

Here’s an example. Did you know that Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka are first cousins? What a wacky coincidence! Fela Kuti was the godfather and originator of afrobeat. He put on these insanely energetic stage shows where he would leap around and play a zillion different instruments while his back-up dancers (several of whom were also his wives) would rock out hardcore.

Fela was also a major political figure. The Nigerian government straight up hated the guy, because his super popular songs were also scathingly satirical. And he had good reasons to be hard on the government, because at the time it was very corrupt and maintained control with hyper-violent gangs of soldiers. Actually, after Fela released his amazing album, Zombie, which was chock-a-block with the most funkadelic social commentary ever, those same soldiers burned down his nightclub/home and terrorized and beat his family. Harsh. But Fela managed to rise from the ashes and inspire an entire continent of people with his music.

And what does afrobeat sound like, you ask? Ooh, I’m glad you did, because afrobeat is a totally great genre of music that combines highlife, funk and some other local styles. What you really need to know about afrobeat is that it’s crazy fun to dance to and songs can last for like 14 minutes. It’s got horns, it’s got a drum section, it’s a party waiting to happen.

Wole Soyinka, meanwhile, is probably one of the four greatest playwrights ever in the history of the “modern” world. Part of why he’s so spectacular is that he uses theatrical traditions from all over the world – including lots of Nigerian forms and stories – to comment on the nature of theatre itself.

Instead of writing in a style that was palatable to Western audiences, Soyinka said “to heck with that” and wrote plays that drew from his own culture, with stylistic elements like call-and-response storytelling and lots of Yoruban mythology and tradition. But they were also super post-modern.  Soyinka didn’t ignore Western forms just because they were Western; he took what was good and beautiful and meaningful from lots of traditions and used them to create great theatre. He’s a genius, is what I’m trying to say here.

And they’re first cousins! Geez, the things I would do to be invited to that family reunion…

That’s what I’m talking about, that kind of info. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll go home tonight and Google afrobeat and realize that it’s the greatest dance music on earth, barring perhaps anything produced by Timbaland. Then maybe you’ll throw a party where you play afrobeat, and your crush will come over while you’re futzing with the iPod and say, “Where did you find this awesome music! You’re so cool. I must paint you.”

And you know what? You don’t even have to tell him/her/hir about this column. That’s my gift to you.

You’re welcome.

If you have any more questions about West African music, or are just looking for someone to start the dance party, contact KATELYN HEMPSTEAD at khempstead@ucdavis.edu.

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