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Griots: Living Historians and Musicians of West Africa

Griots: Living Historians and Musicians of West Africa

Have you ever heard of griots? Griots are storytellers, singers, musicians, and oral historians in West Africa. In today's blog post, we'll delve into the world of griots, uncovering the depth of their significance in preserving the rich history and traditions of West Africa.

A griot is, at its core, a West African storyteller, singer, musician, and oral historian. They undergo rigorous training to master the arts of eloquent speech, lyrical expression, and musical prowess.

Griots are known by various names across West Africa, reflecting their diverse roles and linguistic diversity. In northern Mande areas, they are referred to as "jali," in southern Mande areas as "guewel," in Wolof as "kevel," "kewel," or "okawul," in Serer as "gawlo," in Pulaar (Fula) as "gawlo," in Hassaniyan as "iggawen," in Yoruba as "arokin," and in Soninke as "diari" or "gesere."

These remarkable individuals are not limited to specific regions; they are part of various ethnic groups, including the Mande peoples (such as Mandinka or Malinké, Bambara, Soninke), Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs, and many other smaller groups. Griots are the threads that connect these diverse cultures through their shared traditions.

The importance of a griot in West African society cannot be overstated. They serve as the custodians of community histories, meticulously recording births, deaths, marriages, and the collective memory of generations. Masters of oral traditions, and griots play a central role in preserving the cultural heritage of West Africa, ensuring that the past is never forgotten.

The Birth of Griots

Before we delve into the significant roles griots fulfil, let's take a moment to explore their origins. Griots can trace their roots back to the 13th century within the Mande empire of Mali. Over countless centuries, they have been the custodians of the empire's history, diligently preserving their stories and customs. 

Guardians of Stories and Tradition

Griots have the crucial responsibility of preserving the stories of individual tribes and families within the oral tradition. Their narratives, accompanied by the magic of musical instruments, are an essential part of West African events. For example, during weddings, griots sing and share the family history of the bride and groom, enriching the occasion with ancestral tales. 

Griots also serve as peacemakers and mediators in case of conflicts, drawing upon their deep respect and familiarity with the community. This respect allows them to approach both parties without fear of reprisal, initiating peace negotiations between hostile parties.

In many Mande societies, the jeli (griot) was not merely an entertainer; they were historians, advisors, arbitrators, praise singers, and storytellers rolled into one. They served as living history books, preserving ancient stories and traditions through their songs and narratives. This tradition was meticulously passed down through generations, creating an unbroken chain connecting the past and present. The very name "jeli" means "blood" in the Manika language, signifying their deep connection to spiritual, social, or political powers. Speech, for griots, was more than words; it held the power to recreate history and strengthen relationships.

One remarkable historical example of griots' significance lies in the Mali Empire founded by Sunjata Keita. Sunjata, whose exploits continue to be celebrated in Mali today, was offered a griot named Balla Fasséké to advise him during his reign. Balla Fasséké is considered the founder of the Kouyaté line of griots, which exists to this day.

The Epic of Sunjata

One of the most celebrated epics preserved by griots is the story of Sunjata. Sunjata is the revered founder of the Mali Empire, a testament to the enduring legacy of griots and their storytelling tradition. This epic narrative, infused with courage and triumph, continues to echo through the hearts and minds of the people of Mali and beyond.

Musical Instruments of the Griots

Griots are not only skilled vocalists and storytellers but also accomplished instrumentalists. Their repertoire includes an array of traditional instruments, each with its unique charm and significance.

Among these instruments are the kora, the khalam (or xalam), the ngoni, the kontigi, and the goje (or n'ko in the Mandinka language).

The ngoni

Additionally, the griots employ the balafon, a wooden xylophone, and the junjung to enrich their performances. 

The balafon

(If you are interested in exploring ancient African musical instruments, we recommend exploring our post on 13 instruments from African history).

Preservers of Legendary Tales:

For centuries, griots have passed down the epics of Western Africa through songs and stories. Each griot added their unique perspective, connecting the tales to their lives and those of their audiences. This dynamic process has kept the stories vibrant, relevant, and cherished across generations and cultures.

As we conclude this captivating journey through the world of griots, we unveil not just musicians but living vessels of history, storytellers, and cultural custodians. Griots are the threads that weave the past and present together, creating a tapestry of culture and heritage that stretches across generations. Whether in Senegal or other parts of West Africa, griots are the heartbeats of their communities, the storytellers who ensure that the stories of the past are never lost in the winds of time. So, have you heard of griots? Now you have, and their enchanting world beckons for exploration and celebration.

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