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Hans Johnson serves up another Kenyan project

A scene from "Elephant and Hare," which was illustrated by Duluth native Hans Johnson and written by his wife, Kenya native Naisiae Nakola. The book is the first installment of their "Safari Kids" series. Image courtesy of the artist1 / 2
Duluth native Hans Johnson in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. (Yes, that is an elephant behind him.) Submitted photo2 / 2

There's definitely no shortage of books to buy your kids this year. Fresh off the heels of Chris Monroe's announcement that her third children's book, "Sneaky Sheep," is available for general consumption, former Duluthian Hans Johnson announced his own: "Elephant and Hare."

The book, the first in a series called "Safari Kids," was illustrated by Johnson and written by his wife, Kenya native Naisiae Nakola.

"We have a lot of ideas for the series," said Johnson, who now calls Massachusetts home. "It is going to be focused on the animals, the environment and the culture of Africa in general."

This particular tale is one that Nakola's grandmother told her when she was little.

"When my wife said she wanted to write this book, she told me about the story, how these kids had loved it -- she'd been going to schools and meeting with kids and talking about Maasai culture," he said. "The kids really loved this story that she told, so she decided to make a book."

Johnson knew she was on to something when he was still in Duluth working as a children's advocate at Safe Haven, a shelter for battered women.

"I showed the kids there some pictures, and I told them the story," Johnson recalled. "I remember one little boy, he was probably 5, walked up to me and said, 'I liked that story a lot. Thanks for sharing.' I thought, Alright, this is a good sign."

Although Johnson is primarily known for his musical endeavors (including a stint as Dance Band's drummer), he was quick to jump at the chance to illustrate Nakola's book.

"I just said, 'I'll draw it!'" he told the Budgeteer laughing. "... Ever since I was a little kid I've been drawing."

He had his first cartoon published after entering a contest when he was 9.

"My dad is an on-again, off-again cartoonist himself, and that's how I got into this," Johnson said.

The Denfeld grad isn't bragging about it, however; he's quick to unleash a self-deprecating joke.

"I do pen-and-ink, then I scan it in and I color it with Photoshop," Johnson said. "So, yeah, it's actually not painting ... but I try to make it look as organic as I can.

"Simply I'm just not that good at painting. [Laughs]"

Still, it's something he's really started to focus on. Johnson has all but relegated his music making to the proverbial shelf.

"It's hard to do both, I've found," he said. "... I had two or three good years of Dance Band, and that quenched my thirst."

The children's books he grew up enjoying, which may or may not have influenced his style, are quite varied. He said his favorites were "Harold and the Purple Crayon," "Tin-Tin" (a Belgian-created cartoon in French) and "Clifford the Big Red Dog," whose author, Norman Bridwell, he was fortunate enough to meet out on the East Coast.

"I gave him a copy of my book," Johnson said of "Elephant and Hare," whose first edition has already sold out. "He was very supportive about the book, and encouraging, and gave me great advice."

Johnson's love for all things Kenya actually stems back to his father's travels as a young parent.

"He went with a group of people, and he brought back some different things from there. One of them was the music," he said. "He recorded some Maasai singers, so, when I grew older, I hadn't forgotten about those tapes. I dug 'em up and I said, 'Whoa. This is beautiful music.'"

Intrigued, Johnson went to the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to see if there was any more. Outside of a few scattered recordings here and there, he was out of luck.

"No one had really done an extensive gathering of Maasai music," he said. "I was just a young kid, had just graduated from high school, so I said, 'Screw it. I'll go over there.'"

Thus began a cycle of visiting the African country, recording some performances and then coming back to raise money for further trips back.

Johnson, who would later attain a degree in anthropology, ended up recording "hundreds of songs," which resulted in the album "Rhythm of the Maasai."

But Johnson's relationship with the country goes far beyond those recordings. His group, Maasai Community Connection, helped build a school there where adults -- regardless of gender, age or religion -- attend classes for free.

Johnson's efforts attracted the attention of local musician Alan Sparhawk (of Low, Retribution Gospel Choir and the Black-eyed Snakes), who helped raise funds for the project.

"Alan was drawn to it by the music," Johnson said of his friend's efforts. "I would've loved to have had him along while we were recording, but his involvement was more with the school project."

Not only did "Rhythm of the Maasai" serve as a wholly intriguing project in its own right, but it also helped to bring Johnson and his Maasai wife together: Nakola, who was in America going to school, heard about his trips to her homeland and decided to get in contact with him.

Learn more about Johnson's projects at www.maasaicommunity.org.

NEWS TO USE

Duluth native Hans Johnson and his wife, Naisiae Nakola, will sign their new children's book, "Elephant and Hare," from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, at Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Canal Park. Visit www.letsgosafarikids.com for more information.

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