Above the din of everyday culture — from the spontaneous chatter of the marketplace to the polyphonic rhythms of the traditional shuttle loom, anvil or pestle — rises the acoustic poetry of the West African griot. If it is through the beautiful cacophony of the day-to-day that people assert the present, then it is by the disciplined and metered verse of the griot, or jélì, that they are reminded of where they came from and where they are bound.
The Griot, Memory of a People
“It is said that the day you no longer know where you’re going, just remember where you came from.” — Sotigui Kouyate, La Voix du Griot
And so the griot, master of words and hereditary nyamakala (“nyama-handler”), gives musicality and epic voice to the memory of a culture, while the percussions that may accompany him — i.e. the kora, ngoni, balafon, djembe, or tama — amplify or even mimic the very tone and prosody of his song.
This itinerant praise singer, genealogist, historian, and even social satirist — unique to the Sahel and Savanna zones of West Africa — preserves and recreates a traditional soundscape; one that reverberates from at least the time of Sundiata (r. 1230-1255), founder of the Mali Empire.
“Without us, the names of kings would be forgotten, we are the memory of humankind. By the spoken word, we give life to the facts and actions of kings in front of the young generation.” — Mamadou Kouyaté
The Modern Griot
If the ancestral art of the griot is resilient, resounding, and ever-rooted in traditional Mandé culture, it is also responsive to the call — as if echoing the iconic call-and-response pattern of West African music as a whole — of even the most fleeting of contemporary moments.
“Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error … his wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable … he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene.” – Paul Oliver, Savannah Syncopators
The words of the modern griot — artistic, theatrical, and now even global in their resonance — traverse not only generations but the ancestral borders that once contained and created them.
Ka nyama bo! May the powers of nyama disperse.
Sources and Further Reading
Books and Articles: