Africa has a strong, deep, and rich oral tradition. In many countries across West Africa, this tradition is often preserved by the griots, who are historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets, and/or musicians. Often, the griot is the preserver of the history of a family, a clan, and sometimes of the nation. This is done by narrating how the family/clan/tribe/nation was founded and its outstanding achievements. In essence, the griot is a repository of the oral tradition, and is often seen as a societal leader due to his or her traditional position as advisor to kings and leaders. The griot’s praises centers around the leader of the clan, of the tribe, and of the nation. Thus, great kings throughout history had griots: Sundiata Keita, Kankan Musa, and many others.
The Mali Empire (Malinke Empire), at its height in the middle of the 14th century, extended from central Africa (today’s Chad and Niger) to West Africa (today’s Mali and Senegal). The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita, whose exploits remain celebrated in Mali today. In the Epic of Sundiata, King Naré Maghann Konaté offered his son Sundiata a griot, Balla Fasséké, to advise him in his reign. Balla Fasséké is considered the founder of the Kouyaté line of griots that exists to this day.
Each aristocratic family of griots accompanied a higher-ranked family of warrior-kings or emperors, called jatigi. Moreover, most villages and prominent clans also had their own griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and hundreds of other things.
The Cameroonian author Francis Bebey writes about the griot in his book African Music, A People’s Art (Lawrence Hill Books): “The West African griot … knows everything that is going on… He is a living archive of the people’s traditions… The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle. The profession is by no means a male prerogative. There are many women griots whose talents as singers and musicians are equally remarkable.”
In Mande society, the jeli was an historian, advisor, arbitrator, praise singer (patronage), and storyteller. Essentially, these musicians were walking history books, preserving their ancient stories and traditions through song. Their inherited tradition was passed down through generations. Their name, jeli, means “blood” in Mandinka language. They were said to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers as music is associated as such. Speech is said to have power as it can recreate history and relationships.
In addition to being singers and social commentators, griots are often skilled musicians. Their instruments include the kora, the khalam (also spelled xalam), the goje (called n’ko in the Mandinka language), the balafon and the ngoni.
Griots can be found throughout Africa and bear different names from country to country. A world-renowned singer and grammy award winner descending from a family of griots is Senegalese singer, Youssou N’Dour. Below is the trailer to the movie Griot. Enjoy!