The Griots of West Africa – much more than story-tellers
OriginsThe griot tradition has proved remarkably resilient in West Africa, seven centuries after its beginnings during the Malinke Empire which stretched from modern day Senegal to Timbuktu and Gao in Mali and even included parts of Côte d’Ivoire. The griots were advisors to court, story-tellers, musicians and praise-singers drawn from five leading griot families.
At a roadside café in Williamsville, Abidjan-based griot Bakary Koita greets me with a broad smile. As I ask my first question, he recites a prayer in Arabic, praying for our conversation to be successful. “The word griot means lots of different things”, he tells me. “First of all, a griot’s first job is to be serious. In all that you do, you need to be professional. When there are family problems in your neighbourhood, it’s the griot that intervenes. When there are arguments, the society calls on a griot, so a griot has a big role to play. He shouldn’t be false, he should have a good behaviour, he’s a guide – others look to see how he lives and how his family live. That’s a start on what griots are – they’re do-gooders.” Bakary is the treasurer of the Association de Griots d’Abidjan (English: Association of the Griots of Abidjan). “You can’t make yourself become a griot. You’re born that way. Being a griot is an art. You’re born with it, and you need to exercise it at any moment,” says Bakary, who is a hereditary griot on both his father’s and his mother’s side.
The social tasks of a griotTraditionally, griots were a social caste, dedicated to preserving the memory of society. “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”, said griot Mamadou Kouyaté, quoted in Djibril Tamsir Niane’s Soundjata ou l'épopée mandingue (English: Soundjata or the Mandinka epos). The exact role of a griot is multi-faceted, but in general, the work is a service, particularly to the richer members of the community and for those who (at least in the traditional sense) are considered to be nobility. While griots can be called upon to work at any moment, their specialty is formal ceremonies. “When there’s a marriage, it’s for us. When there’s a baptism, it’s us. When there’s a funeral, it’s us,” says Bakary.
The griot expects a reward for his services as part of a patronage system of wealthy lords, though some griots may also practice a separate trade on the side, such as leather work. A griot does not belong to one person; he belongs to all of society. Bakary explains his position: “I’m a griot – I don’t have things to sell or set up a stand at the market! But I need to feed myself, pay my rent – where does this come from? It comes from the nobles. I’m in the service of the noble. Through him, I can serve all the community.”
The griot in modern timesWhile the spoken word remains the key tool of a griot, he also retains a close bond with music. There are both male and female griots, though the latter tend to specialise in singing and generally do not play more than simple percussion instruments. The four principal instruments are the kora, the balafon, the ngoni (lute) and the voice. Accordingly, some of West Africa’s high profile musical stars are also tied to the griot. Artists such as Guinea’s Mory Kanté and Senegal’s Mansour Seck come from traditional griot castes, and the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour has a maternal connection to the griot caste. But in a break with tradition, others – most notably Salif Keita – have adopted a cultural role which in a traditional society wouldn’t have been theirs to fill.
Beyond music, the concept of the griot has proved flexible and attractive. A whole variety of artists have found meaning in the title which helps them tap into centuries of authentic tradition. The Senegalese film director, Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose most famous work Touki Bouki (1973) is considered one of Africa’s best films, said that “the word griot (...) is the word for what I do and the role that the filmmaker has in society... the griot is a messenger of one’s time, a visionary and the creator of the future.”
Griots frequently compare their work to an ancient baobab tree or a library – a living, speaking testimony to a society’s history. “We can say that they are the memory of the Mandingue people”, says Professor Dagri. “There’s a Mandingue proverb that says “May God move so that griots never perish in war, on the battle field, but every battle field needs a griot, for without his presence the history of what happened would be forever lost.”
John James, Côte d’Ivoire, 2012