In West Africa, written history is relatively new, begun by European colonists in the late 1800s. However, they have long kept their own history, in their own languages, orally. It is in great part because of Griots that West African history and ancient culture has been preserved.
It is said that "when a griot dies, a library has burned to the ground."
Griots (pronounced: greeohs) are unique to West Africa and began in the Mali Empire in the 14th century. Also known as Jeli, they serve many roles, such as historian, storyteller, praise singer, musician, and poet. Traditionally, they were also advisers to royalty, messengers and often served as mediators between neighbors and villages when issues or disagreements arose. Royalty and nobles had their own griots, and many villages had a griot as well who was there to record, in their songs and stories, the births, deaths, marriages, hunts, droughts, wars and other important events.
|Post card c.1904 of a Senegalese chief and his griot|
Photo Credit: The Casas-Rodriguez Postcard Collection (CC)
As storytellers, griots teach history, moralize and entertain with stories of kings, heroes, battles and local myths and gods. As singers, they know a wealth of traditional songs. Within their stories and songs, they sometimes incorporate current events, satire and political commentary with their knowledge of local history and gossip. As praise singers, a good griot will sing praises of one's family lineage based on songs that one's great, great, grandfather will have paid to be composed.
|Griot playing the Kora, Mali|
Photo Credit: Alexandre Baron (CC)
Griots are also musicians, who often play music while telling stories or singing. Traditionally, the were the royal and village musicians. Different griots played different instruments, though the principal instruments are the kora (a stringed instrument similar to a harp), the balafon (a wood and gourd instrument similar to a xylophone) and the ngoni (a small lute). Some of the most popular West African musicians today consider themselves griots and continue to use traditional compositions.
|Fanta Griotte singing at an engagement party in Mali|
Photo Credit: Emilia Tjernstrom (CC)
Griots are both men & women (griottes) though women often have a lesser known status. Traditionally, griots (men) specialize in history and music while griottes (women) specialize in songs and praise singing and they can be found working together, with the woman singing to the man's music. More and more though, the differences blur.
As the bride and groom leave the town hall in Bingerville, just west of Abidjan, a group of women sing and dance. The lead singer cups her hands around a small megaphone to project her voice. They sing the praises of the just-married woman, and gather around the more affluent members of the wedding party, praising their nobility and beauty – all with a twinkle in their eyes and an expectation of reward. - From Word of MouthTo be a griot, one must be musically talented and have a great memory. Training begins as a child until adulthood - you can imagine the time it must take to learn each family's history, the local history, the regional history as well as songs, stories and music. Traditionally, you had to be born into a griot family as it was considered a social caste. The profession was, and for some still is, inherited from generation to generation, and taught by a family member for many years. Today, there are also formal schools making it more accessible to those not born in a griot family. After years of training, griots then apprentice with master griots, often traveling to other regions or countries, watching and assisting during various ceremonies. When talented griots reach middle age, it is then their turn to teach the younger generation.
Below is the trailer to a documentary about a Senegalese griot, that offers a glimpse of griots in modern times
Being a griot is a profession and a service. In return for their services, they are compensated, traditionally with gifts, food and/or lodging though today it is mostly financial. Their is also a history of patronage from the nobility. There is still an active presence in many areas of West Africa, mainly as entertainers in the Madinka empire (Mali, Senegal & Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia). Today's griots are mostly traveling griots, moving from town to town, specializing in formal ceremonies like marriages, baptisms, and funerals.
Extension ActivitiesRead a book:
"The Singing Man" by Angela Shelf Medearis is a story of a griot adapted from a folktale of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. This is the story of the youngest son of three, Banzar, who wishes to be a musician. When he tells this to the elders during his manhood ceremony, the occupation is deemed unpractical, unprofitable, and unacceptable. He is told to choose a more practical occupation or he will be exiled from his village. Banzar chooses music and sets off when he comes across an ageing, blind griot who takes him under his wings. They travel from village to village for years and Banzar's musical style becomes admired. He ends up being quite a famous, successful griot, in the position to help his family and former village during a time of need.
Be a praise singer:
Write a song praising someone in your family! Ask them questions about their parents, siblings and grand parents. Find out about events in their lives that were important, accomplishments and attributes they are proud of. Think of the qualities you most appreciate about this person. Then put it all together into a song. Go one step further: sing the song to your family or share it as spoken word :)
|Griots once were considered low caste in some sections of West Africa, and were denied an earth burial for fear of making the ground impure. Their remains were placed in Baobab trees instead, such as the one in this photo - a mausoleum for the remains of famed local griots in the Reserve de Bandia, Senegal.|
Photo Credit: Ji-Elle