Travel the globe; you just can’t miss the Motown connection

Nigeria 2007

By Ronald Dzwonkowski

June 10, 2009

In the final hour of what had been a long day in Nigeria, a man in local dress stepped onto the elevator of my hotel in Abuja, wearily singing to himself, "I guess, you say, what can make me feel this way ..."

"Hey," I said, "Deee-troit song. Motown."

He brightened up and said, "Temptations."

"My hometown," I said. "Great music. Grew up with it."

We shook hands as he exited on his floor, singing about "so much honey" and offering what I think was a Nigerian version of the Temptations' walk toward his room.

This was just a few hours after a reception at the home of the U.S. ambassador in the Nigerian capital, where I shared stories of last summer's Tigers with a veteran American diplomat who grew up in Flint. A day earlier I had happened upon two Catholic nuns from Detroit who run a convent, clinic and day care center at a parish in Nigeria.

That was after someone handed me a Nigerian business newspaper with a front-page article from Detroit about the Nigerian designer of the new Chevy Volt. The next day, I noticed that a lawyer with whom we were discussing Nigerian election law had a picture of Rosa Parks on the bulletin board of his office in Kaduna.

"She's a great hero to me," he said of the civil rights icon who lived in Detroit.

None of this surprises me anymore. I have found people, ideas and influence from Michigan everywhere I've ever traveled.

The archaeological garden leading to the famous Western Wall or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem bears the name of Bill Davidson, owner of the Detroit Pistons and Guardian Industries.

A few years ago, I followed the sound of drums through the corridors and back hallways of a university in China to find a young man pounding away to music on his headphones. He stopped when he saw me, removed the phones and said with a grin, "Kid Rock, awesome!" A subsequent attempt at conversation indicated that was all the English he knew.

Another time I was in a group of 10 self-selected people from across the country flying in a small plane to a remote part of Mexico's Baja Peninsula when a conversation yielded the fact that the guy who was ostensibly from Atlanta had actually grown up in Redford, near the grocery store where I used to work.

I met cast members from a hit Broadway show in 2005 and found that three were either from Michigan or went to school here. And when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I heard Bill Ivey talk about growing up in the Copper Country of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

Michigan's presence or influence is indeed everywhere, but nowhere did I feel it more than on a harrowing pre-dawn drive last month through the smoggy, congested streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where traffic makes rush hour in Detroit look like a walk in the park. Lagos has way too many cars for its poor roads. Its drivers follow no discernible rules, but rather move as fast as they can whenever they can, which isn't often, scatter pedestrians like bowling pins and play a running game of chicken with one another.

"Who," I thought, "gave all these people the idea that they could drive?"

Oh yeah ... that Detroit influence.