Singer-Storytellers: The Griot Tradition in West Africa
Griots, also known as jeli or bards, are traditional West African storytellers who have played a crucial role in preserving the oral history and cultural heritage of their communities for centuries. With their unique blend of music, storytelling, and oral history, griots bring to life the stories of their people, giving voice to their struggles and triumphs, and keeping their cultural traditions alive. From birth to death, from war to peace, from love to loss, the tales of the griots are as diverse as they are captivating. Their music, steeped in emotion and rhythm, creates a powerful and unforgettable backdrop to their stories. Join us on a journey through the rich and fascinating world of griot storytellers.
The Griots - Africa’s Master Storytellers
Today griots can still be found in many parts of West Africa. They live among various African ethnic minorities such as the Mande peoples , Fula, Hausa, Songhai, Tukuloor, and many more as well as among even smaller groups. Many have also left their ancestral lands behind and emigrated. Traditional griot storytellers can be found in countries that have large migrant African populations such as the United States and France.
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Griot also known as jeli or jail in some regions (Circa 1901). ( Public domain )
It is believed that the term griot comes from the French term “guirot” which in turn came from the Portuguese term “criado.” This was the masculine singular term for servant and aptly describes the griot’s role in their traditional communities, as a servant to the community.
While griot is the term predominantly used in English, African languages have their own names which they use to refer to griots. In northern Mande areas, griots are known as jèli, while in the south they are known as jali. On the other hand, the Yoruba refer to them as arokin while the Ful peoples refer to them as gawlo.
Generally speaking, after “griot” the most common name for them is “jeli.” This comes from the Manding term jely which refers to the combined knowledge of the griots and their hereditary nature.
What Do Griots Do?
Griots are seen as the keepers of both African history and the traditions of their native peoples. They use music, storytelling, and oral history to preserve their cultural heritage. This makes them an essential part of West African society.
Important social gatherings such as weddings and festivals often include a griot. It is the griot’s job to sing and share the hosting family’s history. When conflicts break out between warring factions or families it is the griot’s job to settle the disputes and function as a mediator by using their centuries of historical knowledge.
The mutual respect and familiarity both sides tend to have for the griot means that it is safe for the griot to communicate with both sides without fear of being attacked. As respected members of society, both parties also know that attacking the griot would be unwise.
Griots are skilled musicians as well as orators. They’re known for their unique musical style which includes the use of traditional instruments such as the kora (a stringed instrument), the balafon (similar to a xylophone), and the djembe (a uniquely shaped drum).
A griot tells stories through music. They are highly skilled in many instruments including the African kora (a stringed instrument) seen here. (© Jorge Royan / CC)
These instruments are used to accompany the storytelling and give their tales a rhythmic and melodic backdrop. This music is highly emotional and evocative. It helps bring the stories to life and makes them memorable for listeners.
Many of the stories griots tell revolve around real historical events. These can be small in scale, like individual family histories, to recounting major historical events like wars and battles. They are also responsible for reminding people of their cultural heritage. This means recounting stories about the gods and the spirits of their ancestors.
These tales are normally used to impart moral lessons and cultural values to the younger generations. These stories can also take on a political edge with the griot using them to praise their patrons and to sing the praises of important local leaders.
Griots also have a strong moral obligation. It is often down to them to supply a voice for the marginalized and oppressed within their communities. The stories griots tell highlight social and political issues like poverty, inequality, and human rights abuses. Their songs promote peace, justice, and equality and give hope to those who are suffering.
Becoming a Griot
Griots are their own ethnic group and tend to form an endogamous caste (meaning they usually only marry fellow griots). This means griots are born into the role and receive their training from family members, who pass down their skills and knowledge from generation to generation.
Learning these skills is no easy task. Not only must they learn the arts of oral history, music, and storytelling from a very young age, but they must learn huge amounts of history. It is a role that comes with a lot of responsibility and no small amount of pressure.
The Sahel Epics
A classic example of the type of story griots are responsible for sharing is the Sahel Epics . These stories originate from the Sahel region of West Africa and are some of the most important cultural expressions of the people in this region.
These stories usually feature heroes and heroines who embark on epic journeys and face head-on great challenges. Traditionally these stories incorporate elements of folklore, religion, and real history.
Sundiata Keita as presented in Civilization VI. ( CC BY NC SA 3.0 )
One of the most famous Sahel epics is focused around the real historical figure, Sunjata “the lion thief who takes his inheritance”, and how he became the founder of the Mali Empire . As is common with oral telling there are hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of this tale but they usually follow similar story beats.
It is usually said Sunjata was born under unusual circumstances, covered head to toe in thick hair, and paralyzed from the waist down. The more fantastical versions of the story have the young hero inheriting magical powers from his mother, which he uses to give himself the ability to walk. His magical gifts (or disability) then lead him to be exiled from his community. After some years away he then returns as a powerful military leader.
Upon his return, he defeats the kingdom’s evil sorcerer-king, Sumanguru Kante, and expels him and his army from the Mande homeland. The story then usually goes into detail about how Sumanguru fell to darkness by becoming obsessed with a magical balafon (similar to a xylophone) that belonged to forest genies. He eventually gets his hands on the magical instrument, but only after his sister sacrifices herself to the genies as payment. Sumanguru uses the magical instrument to rule Western Africa until Sunjata’s eventual intervention.
The epic of Sunjata has remained a popular story to this day. It is said that if one tried to combine all the different versions of the story and tell it as one it would take days to complete. The epic is so popular that lyrics from the poem have been adopted into the national anthem of Mali.
One of the reasons epics like this have remained so popular in West Africa is the fact they have a personal connection to the listeners. A young person from Mande will hear the griots praise the names of their ancestors while they tell the Sunjata epic.
Sunjata’s family name is Keita, which is a popular family name to this day, giving many listeners a familial connection to this ancient story. While the epics of other cultures, like the ancient Greeks, have remained static over the centuries, the epics the griots tell continue to evolve, constantly adapting as their audiences change.
Griots In History
Griots aren’t just repositories of history; they have their own fascinating history. While they have always tended to play the same cultural role, how they have been treated and their social standing has tended to change from time to time and from place to place.
For example, in the Mali Empire of West Africa (which lasted from 1226 to 1670), the griots were highly respected and it was tradition for royal family members to give each other griots who acted as royal advisors.
The griots became an aristocratic caste and each higher-ranked family of warrior kings and emperors (known as jatigi) had its own family of griots. In Malian tradition, you couldn’t be a griot if you didn't have a jatigi, and you couldn’t be called a jatigi if you had no griot. Most villages also had their own family of griots who were responsible for recording and retelling local histories etc.
On the other hand, things were very different for the griots who lived with the Mande people. In these societies, the griot was known as a jeli and they acted as advisors, singers, and storytellers. Unlike the griots within the Mali Empire, however, these griots did not enjoy such high social standing. It was believed the griots held deep connections to the spiritual world and that their talents gave them social and political power over people. This led to distrust and meant they weren’t always respected or well-loved by the Mande people.
Ancient tradition singled the griots out as a separate people with their own caste. This meant that in the worst cases, they were treated differently than the Mande people. For example, griots were sometimes buried in trees rather than in the ground because people believed doing so would pollute the earth. Griots also suffered from other social seclusions, a prime example being the fact that for a long time, the Mande people banned them from marrying outside of the griot caste.
Challenges Faced by Modern Griots
Despite their important role in preserving cultural heritage, griots have faced an increasing number of challenges in recent years. Many griot communities have been displaced by war, famine, and other types of violence. This has led to a tragic loss of local knowledge and traditions.
In some cases, the griots have faced persecution, and their instruments and cultural artifacts have been destroyed. Thankfully despite these challenges, the griots have not backed down and their tradition continues to thrive in many parts of Africa. In recent years many African countries have instituted laws banning any persecution of the griots.
Griots are the keys to the past. In a place where history has mostly been passed down through generations orally, they sing about happenings in the past, and about personalities in the present. (Emilia Tjernström/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Today many proud young African people have chosen to take up the mantle of the griot to carry the tradition into the future. In recent years there has been a growing interest in griot culture and many griots have become prominent figures on the international stage. They have increasingly been invited to perform at international festivals and concerts all over the world, sharing their unique cultural heritage with audiences of all ages, races, and backgrounds.
The power of human voice in preserving cultural heritage
In conclusion, the tradition of the griot storyteller is a testament to the power of the human spirit and the importance of preserving cultural heritage. Through their music, storytelling, and oral history, griots bring to life the stories of their people and keep their cultural traditions alive.
Despite the challenges they have faced in recent years, the griot tradition continues to thrive, and the stories of the griots will continue to be told for generations to come. The griots are a reminder that the power of the human voice and the power of storytelling can overcome any obstacle, and that the cultural heritage of our communities is something worth preserving and cherishing for all time.
Top image: The ancient storyteller known as a griot uses their voice, sounds and music to tell stories about the past. Source: tomalu/AdobeStock
By Robbie Mitchell
Abdul-Fattah. H. 2020. How Griots Tell Legendary Epics through Stories and Songs in West Africa. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/perspectives/articles/2020/4/sahel-sunjata-stories-songs
Hale. T. 1998. Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Bloomington.
Hoffman. B. 2001. Griots at War: Conflict, Conciliation and Caste in Mande. Bloomington.
Great Griots might be why somebody decided we should have a ‘written’ history, be it true or not.
Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.