By Rachel M. Anderson, Freelance Writer

A few years ago if you asked an elementary school-aged child what they know about Africa the answer probably would have been, "Not much." But now that our nation's first African-American President has been elected to office multicultural awareness is taking on a new urgency in our schools.

"President Barack Obama's background - the son of an African man and an American woman - offers an amazing platform to bring our two cultures together. There's no doubt in my mind that American interest in Africa is expanding as a direct result of his election," says Professor Chérif Keita, who teaches French language and Francophone African and Caribbean Literature at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

The native of Mali in West Africa moved to America more than 20 years ago and says he has noticed a definite shift in the way teachers are presenting information about his homeland. "American teachers used to focus their lessons about Africa on the poverty and famine on the continent. But I'm happy to say the focus is now shifting to Africa's rich culture and tradition."

"It's about time people started paying attention to cultures outside North America," says Ryan Skinner, a 1996 graduate of Hopkins High School and a 2000 graduate of Carleton College. He had planned to major in graphic arts before enrolling in one of Keita's courses and discovering a passion for African studies. He just completed a doctorate in Ethnomusicology, specializing in West African music & culture, at Columbia University.

As part of his studies Skinner won a Fulbright fellowship and numerous other grants and awards that allowed him to spend nearly three years studying abroad in Mali. During that time he observed more similarities between our two cultures than he expected to find.

"The kindness and generosity I experienced with my hosts in Mali made me feel right at home. We'd spend hours talking as we sipped sweet green tea, discussing everything from politics and family life to the day's soccer match. We had much in common," says Skinner.

He also observed a lot of differences while living in the home of Toumani Diabaté, a Grammy Award-winning kora player from Bamako, Mali. (A kora is a 21-string harp made out of a calabash gourd and wood from the Guénou tree, a species native to West Africa.

For example, in America music is a big part of the culture, but not necessarily of family life. However, in this part of West Africa children of families of artists (known as "griots") are actually initiated into the musical traditions of their society.

"In Mali it is a rite of passage to become a musician. Learning how to make and play an instrument like the kora and understanding music's important place in society is part of that," says Skinner.

During his time in Toumani's home Skinner observed the musical apprenticeship of Sidiki, Toumani's young son. He witnessed the boy learning how to construct a kora from raw materials and then play it. By the time he left in 2001, the ten year-old boy was well on his way to carrying on the family tradition of creating beautiful music with the kora.

Upon returning home Skinner wanted to share what he had learned and observed about West African culture with his friends, family and the community so he wrote and illustrated a children's book. Sidikiba's Kora Lesson (Beaver's Pond Press, 2008, $25.00) begins when ten year-old Sidikiba's father decides it is time that he follow in the family tradition of playing the kora. His initiation requires that he practice and be patient and that he listen and defer to the wisdom and knowledge of his elders.

In taking up the instrument of his father Sidikiba also learns about his Mande cultural heritage, experiences community learning and receives a broad, multi-generational education from his uncle, grandfather and a host of extended family members.

"Ryan has an incredible understanding of the music and family dynamics in West Africa and I think his book is a great teaching tool for students at many levels of their education, all the way from middle school through college. I'm planning to send a group of 20 Carleton College students to Mali in December and will recommend they pick up a copy of Ryan's book as part of their preparation for the trip," says Prof. Keita.

In his review of the book, Banning Eyre, author of In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali and senior producer of the Public Radio International program, Afropop Worldwide, said, "As Sidikiba becomes more fully a part of his family and musical society, the young reader learns about African history, inter-generational nurturing, and some of the most alluring music on the African continent."

"This book comes highly recommended, especially for multicultural studies shelves," said the Midwest Book Review's reviewer.

Sidikiba's Kora Lesson is a Beaver's Pond Press book. It sells for $25.00 and includes a bonus audio CD of seven songs arranged and performed by Sidiki Diabaté himself.

About Ryan Skinner

Ryan Skinner is an author, illustrator, musician and ethnomusicologist. For the past ten years he has conducted extensive research on traditional and modern music in Mali, West Africa. Skinner is a longtime student of kora master Toumani Diabaté and has performed and taught kora music in Europe and the United States. The recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, Skinner recently completed a doctorate in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University. His first book, Sidikiba's Kora Lesson, which he both authored and illustrated, just won first place in the multicultural category of the Independent Book Publishers Association's
(IBPA) Benjamin Franklin Awards.

Skinner currently lives in Austin, Tex., with his wife, Johanna, and their young son, Elias. The family is preparing for a move to Cairo, Egypt, where Skinner will likely teach World Music at a local university and begin work on a new book.