SOAS University of London

SOAS honours Grammy award-winning musician and two distinguished scholars, one a Nobel Prize-winning author, at Graduation Ceremonies

19 June 2015
Honorary Fellows 2015

One of the most celebrated instrumentalists in West African music and two notable academics, one of whom is a Nobel Prize-winning author, are to be honoured for their achievements at the 2015 Graduation Ceremonies of SOAS, University of London.

The Honorary Doctorate awardees are Toumani Diabaté for his impact in raising awareness of the West African kora as a world-class instrument, J. M. Coetzee, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and one of South Africa’s greatest novelists and sinologist Dr Frances Wood for her outstanding contribution to scholarship in the arts, culture and history of China.

Described as one of the most important musicians in Africa, Toumani Diabaté is widely acknowledged as the greatest living player of the kora, a harp unique to West Africa with 21 strings. He has won two Grammy awards and has released more than ten solo albums to date. In addition to performing the traditional music of Mali, he has also been involved in cross-cultural collaborations with flamenco, blues, jazz and other international styles. He has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and the Icelandic pop singer Bjork, amongst countless others. His Honorary degree is in recognition of his efforts to create an understanding of the kora and Mande music and culture around the world. The kora is one of the instruments taught at SOAS through the Department of Music, the largest and leading centre in Europe for the study of World Music.

One of the world’s leading novelists and critics, J. M. Coetzee studied English and mathematics at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and eventually made his academic career there (by way of doctoral studies in literature, languages and linguistics at the University of Texas –Austin).  During his tenure as Distinguished Professor of Literature at UCT, he also held visiting professorships at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and the University of Chicago where, for many years, he was a member of the Committee on Social Thought. The first author to win the Booker Prize twice (for Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999)), he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  In 2005, South Africa honoured him with the Order of Mapungubwe (Gold) for his ‘exceptional contribution in the field of literature’ and for ‘putting South Africa on the world stage’. He is Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) and Ridder van de Orde van de Leeuw (Netherlands). Among his many other works are Waiting for the Barbarians, Age of Iron, and, more recently, Scenes from Provincial Life and The Childhood of Jesus. He has lived in South Australia since 2002, and is currently Professor of Literature at the University of Adelaide.

Dr Frances Wood has made extraordinary contributions to public life in an area that is relevant to the School's mission, namely the arts, culture and history of China. In 2013 she retired after many years as head of the Chinese section at the British Library. Dr Wood is a scholar who has, modestly but brilliantly, communicated Chinese history and culture to diverse audiences. In the course of a long career at the British Library, which included the completion of her PhD under William Watson at the Percival David Foundation in 1984, Dr Wood has curated numerous exhibitions and produced many important publications. Some of these have achieved attention far beyond the field of Chinese art and culture, including Did Marco Polo Go to China? (1995) and Hand Grenade Practice in Peking: my part in the Cultural Revolution (2000).

Professor Paul Webley, Director of SOAS, said: “This year’s Honorary Doctorates have been awarded to exceptional individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to scholarship, public life or in the understanding of Asia, Africa or the Middle East. With our Centenary fast approaching, this year’s awardees epitomise SOAS’ mission, each serving as an interpreter of our complex world - through music, literature and education - sharing their knowledge and practice with the wider public.”