Essay: Griot Traditions in Mali, West Africa

Oral traditions are messages that are transmitted from fathers to offspring. These messages can be passed through the story, song or make take the form of folktales and fables, epic histories and narrations, proverbs and sayings, and songs. Oral Traditions allow passing knowledge and wisdom through generations without writing. They help people make sense of the world and are used in order to teach children and adults about crucial aspects of the culture. Storytelling is a shared event with people sitting together, listening and participating in accounts of past deeds, taboos, beliefs, and myths.

Storytelling traditions vary all over the world. There is a rich tradition throughout Africa of oral storytelling (Joanna Lott). Despite the fact that written history existed for centuries in West Africa, the majority of people cannot read or write Arabic. Therefore, the transmission of the knowledge and experience in West Africa was basically through oral traditions and performance, rather than through written texts (Joanna Lott).

The oral tradition of storytelling makes it possible for a culture to pass history, knowledge and experiences from one generation to another. Traditional storytelling in Africa reveals themes, ideas, beliefs, values and facts that are widely spread. It discloses conceptions that are unique to a region, village and tribe. Storytelling in Africa has been manifested in many ways and was used to serve many purposes such as interpretation of the universe, resolution of natural and physical phenomena, teaching morals, maintaining cultural values, passing on methods of survival and praising Gods (Thomas A. Hale). People responsible for passing knowledge and experience are called griots (males) and griottes (females) in West African culture.

Mali as the homeland of Griots
Although the griots in West Africa arise from many linguistic and ethnic traditions, many consider all or the part of their roots to be tied to the XIII century Malian Empire and its founder, Sundjata Keita. According to Thomas A. Hale, the primary tale of griot origins involves blood sacrifice and is used to explain the reason why taboos associated with griots and why their case is different from other West African villagers (Thomas A. Hale).

Africa has known many empires, but the Empire of Mali was the most memorable. The Empire of Mali is also called the Mading Empire. It lasted from 1235 to 1468 and was the Empire that united West Africa, which is a mostly inhospitable region of savannahs, forests, deserts, fishermen, farmers and cattle herders (Joanna Lott). Mali controlled both the mining of gold in the area and trade. The Mali Empire served as a model for later African kingdoms long after its decline in XV and XVI centuries.

The memory of ancient Mali exists today, and it happens due to the work of griots among Manding people. Nowadays, the Manding are spread throughout six West African countries: Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso. The Manding people have never gained political unity since 1468, however they have managed to maintain a remarkably unified culture (Joanna Lott). They relied on their griots in order to remind them of their glorious contribution into history. The most cherished of all griot histories is the story of Sundita Keita, the first King of the Maliaan Empire (Joanna Lott).

Sundjata Keita is the cultural hero and ancestor of the Mande people, the founder of the great Mali Empire, and inspiration of the great oral epic tradition of griots. Sundjata Keita was one of the most prominent griots and is still a great example to follow for people in West Africa. As the history tell, the Empire was founded by Sundjata Keita, so the King Nare Maghann Konate offered his son Sundjata a griot whose name was Balla Fasseke in order to advise him with his reign (Joanna Lott). Balla Fasseke is considered to be the founder of the Kouyate line of griots that exists to this day.

Griot/Griottes Traditions in Mali, West Africa
Griot, “jali”, “jeli” is an oral historian and the repository of oral tradition in West African culture. Griot is a social memory of the clan and the holder of the word (World Affairs Council of Houston). Griots and griottes are masters of words, performance and music for many societies in the Savannah and Sahel regions of West Africa. In fact, “jali” means “blood” in Mande society (Manika language), which implies that griots have a deep connections to social, spiritual, and political powers. They are often described as praise-singers, storytellers, however, griots usually perform the variety of other functions that no single definition or term in English can adequately convey the meaning of the word “griot”. In the first chapter of his book “Griots and Griottes”, Thomas A. Hale explains: “Griots in Gambia, Mali and Senegal serve as royal advisers, village historians, teachers, diplomats, witnesses, mediators, exhorters, praise singers and key participants in the important village ceremonies” (Thomas A. Hale).

Griots recount genealogies, compose songs in order to mark important events, narrate epics, sing praises for others, entertain at ceremonies, such as weddings, naming ceremonies, teach both children and adults about the past, serve as intermediates in delicate family, community or clan negotiations, exhort troops about going into battle, serve as spokespersons, announce news, interpret speeches, maintain the legal, historical and family records of people and give pieces of advice to their rulers.

The griot profession inherited and passed from one generation to another. Griots are very different from the rest of common people and perceived as a different ethnic group. They are both feared and respected by people in West Africa for their talent and wisdom (World Affairs Council of Houston).

There are numerous types of oral histories that promote cultural awareness in West African societies. Legends and genealogies served to promote social stability and expressed historic truth and political power in a symbolic way. Riddles and tales were used to entertain people and explain to people moral truths of the given society. Parables were used to settle personal conflicts and dilemmas (Thomas A. Hale). Folktales were used as a medium through which griots were able to deliver cumulative wisdom of the past and behavioral values of the community to the next generation. Folktales are drawn from life episodes, real-life people, places, animals and things that have a great impact on people in the region. Usually folktales discussed such topics as life and death, creating, birth, friendship, love, corruption, degradation and many more.

Every oral tradition is no more than the sum of those who convey it. Every griot puts his own mark on the narrative that he tells. Many factors influenced whether a person was appropriate to be a storyteller or not. Person’s age, sex, experience and professional status were taken into precise consideration. Person’s age determined the types of stories griots were allowed to tell; person’s sex influences the ability to act as a storyteller in West African communities. Moreover, there were subjects that were not discussed in the mixed group. In general, men had more leisure time in comparison to women who were busy with cleaning, cooking and raising children. However, the most factor whether a person was appropriate to be a storyteller was experience and professional status. In many societies, the occupation of griot was inherited by children from parents.

Griots also served as musicians, composers, praise singers and exhorters where they entertained the ruler and his people and as teachers where they taught about the rules, behavioral expectations, and the value of their society (Thomas A. Hale). Griots were famous for their mastery of the language, communal knowledge of people and their natural ability to involve audience into their performances. Tools of storyteller are not only words, but facial expressions, singing, gestures, body movements, and acting to make stories interesting and easy to memorize.

Male griots play a great number of musical instruments, ranging from the 21-stringed kora, that is a kind of harp-lute, to the 5-to-5 stringed ngoni, which is also known as xhalam, koni or molo, an instrument that resembles modern guitar, the xylophone-like balafon and various kinds of drums. Griottes in the Mande world play the nege, newo or karinyan, a small piece of metal pipe with the striker, and Moor women play the ardin, a 14-to-17 stringed harp-lute (World Affairs Council of Houston).

Understanding a griot’s functions as genealogist is essential for understanding the griot’s approach to living history, as recounting genealogy dignifies and honors both an individual and their ancestors by connecting those past to a person in the present, and contextualizing an individual with the achievements of those who came before him. Griot’s job was to link the past and present and serve as the witness to events.
Griots were very profound in different African dialects and served as translators, spokepersons and mediators.

Over the time griot’s functions has changed as the society evolved. Once being genealogists, historians entertainers, praise singers, messengers and advisers to nobility, griots perform on television now and record CDs. Nowadays griots hold a difficult position in the society. Many of them do not see oral art as a respectable profession and feel that griots should obtain a “real job” to support themselves and their families. Many people see griots as only beggars who pester others on public just to receive money or gifts. In some areas of West Africa, griots have such a low social ranking that it is hard for a griot to find a wife to marry. Modern educational systems and technology have pushed these artists on the background.

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