Spoken Word arrives in Mali

Spoken word as such is not a well-known concept in our part of the world. In reality, however, many young artists already practice it without being conscious of it. Good examples include the comedy company "Yèlèbougou" or the various poetry slam and hip hop groups that thrive in different cities in Mali. They have inherited an established tradition of West African storytelling particularly in Mali where, for example, Djéli Baba Sissoko’s stories were broadcast on Tuesday evenings on Radio Mali entrancing generations of people in West Africa from the time of independence (1960) until the early 1990s. Upon his death, Souleymane Sissoko took up the mantle of his father with equally talented performances. Other great storytellers include Djéli Djaffé Diabaté whose work "Niènècoro ka Toncan" was transcribed and published in book form by the publishing house Edis in 2009 and Batoma Sanogo whose masterpiece "Ntoron kélé" was brought to the screen in the form of a short-film by director Boubacar Sidibé in 2000. These traditional storytellers have enhanced the status of the national language Bambara. Others, like film-maker and storyteller Feu Falaba Issa Traoré and Nouhoum Cissé, also known as Banièngo have won first prizes in various francophone awards contributing to the increased international prestige of Malian storytelling.

In 1994 the Ministry of Culture, aware of the importance of storytelling in the handing down of our cultural values from generation to generation instituted the "Grande Parole" festival. The week-long festival is attended by storytellers from all over Mali and French-speaking West Africa. The festival, which proved immensely popular, was held for the third and final time in 1997.

On Sunday 10 November the Spoken Word production team is arriving in Bamako. The Spoken Word project which has been touring Africa will give numerous young Malian storytellers, largely unknown to the public, a chance to show off their talents. The tour began in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the three best poets were selected by an independent jury. Their performances were then recorded on video and put online to be accessed by Malagasy artists who could draw inspiration and a few key-words from the performances in order to create their own works. This format has been reproduced throughout the year by artists in Yaoundé in Cameroon, Luanda in Angola, Kampala in Uganda and Nairobi in Kenya. Now it’s Bamako's turn to take part in this important cultural phenomenon. Bamako is the second last leg of the tour before it ends in Abidjan.

After each leg of the tour, the winner of the competition from that country is invited to perform at the next competition. For this reason Bamako will have the honour of hosting the winning storyteller of the Kenyan leg of the tour, Wambui Raya. The winner of the Bamako competition will perform in Abidjan. Spoken Word encompasses spoken poetry, storytelling, literary performances, rap poetry and poetry slam. Because this pan African Festival was instituted by the Goethe Institute, Germany will host the winners of each leg in 2014. This occasion will focus the lens on the creators of this new art-form as well as show-casing the talent of African youth.

Orality is one of the oldest traditions in the world. There have always been storytellers and poets who recited their works in front of a live audience. The term Spoken Word, as such, originates in the United States where it was inspired by the traditions of jazz, soul, blues and the Beat Generation. Spoken Word has flourished in North America in recent years, particularly in Montreal.

Spoken Word is text performed by its author in front of an audience. Even though the point of departure for this art-form is the written word, the emphasis is on the sound of the words and their rhythm when performed. Direct and accessible language is favoured for this reason, moving the text along, giving it life and allowing for improvisation. As well as the words themselves, the performers explore the expressive potential of the voice and the body as well as the space offered by the stage and sometimes even technology to augment their performance.

Spoken Word is a live and immediate experience which manifests in the exchange between poet-performer and audience. The performers have to accept that as they recite the public has an impact, affecting the trajectory of the performance and sometimes of the text itself. Performances vary based on whether they happen at the beginning or the end of the night, whether the audience is large or small or whether the audience is particularly lively and engaged. This means the artist needs to be flexible and sensitive to the setting and atmosphere of the performance. In contrast to stage actors, Spoken Word performers write their own texts. Even while sometimes playing a character and incorporating music, scenes or props, their emphasis is always on speaking directly to the audience rather than acting in front of the audience.

Youssouf Doumbia has been a culture journalist for the national daily ‘L'essor du Mali’ in Bamako for almost twenty years. He has covered numerous artistic, cultural, craft and tourism events in his country. He has been an eye-witness to many important events in which his country has been involved such as international conferences, forums and other cultural events which have taken place on every continent.

He has been published in various periodicals and collections published in French, German, English and Arabic.
Youssouf DOUMBIA
Culture Journalist
L'essor national daily
Tel: (223) 66 79 79 79
Bamako - Mali