St. Louis man brings African fables to Carbondale

By Gus Bode

The crowd of children jumped as a man in a vibrant green outfit slammed his hand on the drum, and for the next 45 minutes, Kenya Ajanaku’s voice and drums reverberated off the bookshelves at the Carbondale Public Library Saturday.

For 26 years, Ajanaku has shared African culture to people of all ages with his rhythmic drumming and stories. Saturday’s performance was full of audience participation including a section where the children came up and played instruments with Ajanaku.

During the presentation, Ajanaku asked for six volunteers from the audience, which consisted mostly of grade-school children. He gave them instruments, ranging from cowbells to a djundjun – or a bass drum. After a quick rehearsal, the children acted as an African band, playing a simple rhythm while Ajanaku wailed on his djembe, an African drum.


The St. Louis native was inspired by the world-renowned anthropologist Katherine Dunham, who brought teachers and storytellers from all over the United States and Africa to St. Louis where he was able to study with them and get his inspiration for becoming a visual performing artist. From there, Ajanaku played as a percussionist with Bobby Norfolk, a former storyteller from St. Louis. When Norfolk retired, Ajanaku decided to keep the tradition alive.

Ajanaku’s storytelling, which comes from West African folklore and his imagination, dazzled the children and let them see true African storytelling.

Rochelle Howell, a graduate student from Carbondale, who brought her 4-year-old son Silas to the performance, said its great to see someone so engrossed with African customs.

“I liked how he combined music with storytelling,” Howell said. “It’s very important to show off the beautiful African culture.”

The children’s faces lit up as he began to tell one of his favorite stories, “The Monkey and the Calabash.”

The story began with a monkey and a tiger who are best friends. But after the monkey plays a trick on the tiger, their friendship ends. As Ajanaku crouches to get level with his young audience, he said, the monkey wanted to visit a friend who was having a fiesta, but to get to the party he would have to walk past the tiger’s house. With a flash of genius, the monkey decides to put on a calabash, which is a large gourd, as a disguise.

The monkey outsmarted the tiger and made it to the party. At the party, the monkey ate, drank and was merry, but everyone was upset by his obnoxious behavior. He went home sad because no one liked him anymore.


“The moral is don’t always go around playing tricks on your friends or loneliness will be your reward,” Ajanaku said.

Ajanaku said his performances are to show African culture, and reveal that people can lead a happy life through the visual arts.

“I’m working to show people that there is more than boxing, baseball, basketball and golf,” Ajanaku said.

Reporter Matthew McConkey can be reached at [email protected]