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Pleasure Seekers 

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On a sweltering afternoon a middle-aged woman in cutoffs and braids rushes into the store on the corner of 85th and Cottage Grove. Reggae streams from two midsize speakers, and the yellow awning reads: the African Hedonist CDs and Tapes. She glances around and approaches the owner. "What's an African hedonist?" she says. "I thought this was an art store."

The owner furrows his brow and then sighs. Mawuena Danku, a 37-year-old native of Ghana, has grown used to explaining his store and its music. "A hedonist is a pleasure seeker," he says. "And since African music is the basis for most modern musical forms, we provide pleasure through African and related music."

The woman pushes her braids out of her face and peers at the shelves of compact discs. "Oh. I was looking for African art. This looks like a cultural center." She scurries out of the store.

The small store does resemble a center for black culture: an African mask hangs over the door, a glass case displays multicolored kufis (crownlike hats), and the shelves are lined with rap, jazz, R & B, soca, reggae, highlife, juju, and soukous recordings.

Growing up in Ghana's capital city of Accra, Danku was surrounded by diverse music: the Memphis Stax sound, highlife, Methodist and Presbyterian hymns, blue beat (which evolved into reggae), Handel and Strauss, James Brown, as well as indigenous drumming and chanting. Danku arrived in Chicago in 1981 searching for adventure, but didn't find it at Roosevelt University, in various odd jobs, or in corporate America. "I don't fit into the corporate structure," he says. "It's too rigid and unresponsive. I wanted something interesting, where I didn't have to be a robot." So in January 1992 he and his wife, Alecia, opened the African Hedonist. "I wanted to bring more diverse musical styles to the south side. The north side has all those big record-store chains."

A man in an olive shirt and khakis strides in, trailed by two teenage girls. "Do you have the CDs?" the man says in the same lilting accent as Danku's. "They had better be good."

A wide grin creeps across Danku's face, and he takes out a disc called Spirit of Zimbabwe. "You'll love this," he says, bobbing his head as rhythmic melodies roll from the speakers. The man leans closer.

"I found that there's a need to educate our customers," says Danku. "There's not enough knowledge about world music. But we're going to fix that." He and his wife are starting a monthly newsletter that will review reggae, rap, African, blues, and jazz music, as well as provide concert info, community business profiles, and editorials.

"We'll cover different musical styles that a lot of people aren't exposed to on the radio," says Alecia. She also spins Ghanian tunes for WHPK FM's Rendezvous Africa on Fridays and showcases more African artists for African Dreams on Thursdays. "There just aren't many radio programs that feature world music--and the ones that play reggae will only play dancehall."

Danku is organizing a free music fest in August so that more people can hear the music radio disregards. "We'll put on a world-music festival featuring local artists. We'll have blues, reggae, African, jazz--whatever the mainstream ignores, we'll have."

"Do you have Boss?" says a teenage girl as she saunters into the shop in Lycra shorts and blue Air Jordans.

"The single or the album?" says Danku, opening the cabinet of rap tapes.

"The album," she says quickly.

He pulls out a tape that says Born Gangstaz on the cover. An older boy in a green-and-gold shorts set comes in asking for Boss.

"What's this 'Boss'?" asks Danku's Ghanian friend, clutching his soukous CD.

Danku shrugs his narrow shoulders. "Some 'mother fucka this, mother fucka that.' Lady rapper."

A woman walks in and asks eagerly, "Do you have my order?"

He pulls out two Joe Sample CDs.

"I've been waiting for this!" she squeals. "This is my cool-out, come-home-from-work-and-relax music."

As he rings up the CDs, the woman stares at a framed brown- and-gold poster on the wall behind the counter: "Black Music Is: Monthly, Daily, Hourly, Every Minute, Every Second, Always, All the Time, Anytime, Everywhere, Forever." "Is that poster for sale?" she asks, not taking her eyes from it.

"It's discontinued," Danku says. "One of the record companies did it for Black History Month a couple of years ago."

"How about that one?" she says hopefully.

He laughs and hands her her CDs. "It's not for sale."

A doctor who works in the office next door strolls in and sits on a stool next to the counter. "What do you have today?" he asks.

Danku pulls out a Jimmy Smith CD, and the organist's jazzy music starts blasting. After a couple minutes Danku pulls out another CD and dangles it in front of the doctor's eyes. This Is Dancehall Vol. II runs across the cover, which also has a woman in a cut-out, one-piece swimsuit. "You'll want this too," he says, grinning. Out of the speakers storms a heavy backbeat layered with fast Jamaican singing and rapping. "There's nothing like reggae on a hot day," he says, swaying to the beat.

Outside people walking by look at the store curiously. Cars slow down, and the drivers squint at the sign and then at the speakers. One car turns around and parks. Its driver lumbers over. "Hey," he says, pushing open the door. "What's a hedonist?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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