Griots: The importance of documentation

Lewis Persaud Jan 2, 2021 at 12:00pm

January 02, 2021 at 12:00 pm | Opinions & Features

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Lewis Persaud

January 02, 2021 at 12:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour with maternal connection to the traditional griot caste seen here at the Festival de Cornouaille (or just Cornouaille Kemper), 2010. Photo: Thesupermat/Wikimedia Commons

When discussing the history of one’s people or continent, it is very easy to disvalue, disregard and disengage with information not presented in thesis-styled essays or intellectually challenging or stimulating books. Across the mother continent of Africa, there has long been a misunderstood method of recording relevant information. In the diaspora, despite our severed connection from the motherland, it seems we too do use these undervalued mechanisms to tell stories or to keep a record.

When de-colonizing the mind, it is imperative to be open to any form of giving knowledge especially in a palatable format such as music, poetry and song, as in mainstream textbooks, literature and/or film on the continent can be subject to false narratives, deliberate misinformation or harmful stereotypes. This is why it is essential to document events because a “people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. The Honourable Marcus Garvey knew that the importance of rewiring, rebuilding the disseverment of colonization and slavery is the first step to freedom for people of African descent. It is integral to see why the evidence of events and positive affirmations of these traditional cultural customs can help raise one’s sense of self. 

Griots are oral historians, musicians, storytellers, and praise singers who are said to have originated between the 4th and 13th centuries in Western Africa. The Soninke identified the first Griot “Gassire” during this period through their epic set of poems and oral traditions called the ‘Dausi’. Traditionally they were “of a social caste”, meaning an honorary holistic occupation. The responsibilities of these esteemed individuals ranged from public music performances to narrating entire genealogies. How they told their stories were through “four principal instruments — the Kora, the Balafon, the Ngoni and the voice. It is more than plausible to assume each Griot family would stick to one instrument and will learn to make, harness and perform the instrument and songs passing it down to future generations. They were also known as advisors and diplomats of their villages. This role is not as prominent today as they were during ancient times but are still woven into the culture of civilizations in the continent.  

Despite their illustrious history enriched in culture and respect through their status, even being referred to as ‘dyeli faama’ by the Bumba of the Congo which means royalty, the reliance on culture has been criticized. This is due to it not being considered valid by some or due to the displacement and/or destruction of African society causing these oral records to be lost. The role of the Griot cannot be overstated particularly in preserving people’s history, whether it be hundreds or thousands of years ago where the high levels of technology that exist today simply were not around or today in giving younger generations direct access to their historical origins and to continue typical traditions from dying out due to Westernisation.

One may ask, ‘how does this relate to me?’ I do not live in Africa or don’t plan to go there. My answer to that would be to be truly concerned with the empowerment and liberation of all people of African descent (“black people”), one must be engaged with those in the continent as well as the diaspora.  It is also noteworthy to see when the artistry of ancient cultures shows up in their descendants who have been disconnected and away from the continent for hundreds of years. An example of this is the fact that many “historians have likened the call and response between Griot and audience to modern day African American church traditions”.

As rightly put by the Encyclopaedia of African History and Culture, it shows how it is within the fabric of some of our DNA to even unknowingly pay homage to the motherland. In a more contemporary version of call response, it can be seen in the ’90s and even modern Hip Hop where there are big, fun call and response choruses that actively want audience engagement. This is why it is crucial to highlight these things and inform people to show them that we are a lot similar than we may believe despite some obvious differences.

In the current music landscape, “some of today’s high profile musicians from West Africa, like Mory Kanté from Guinea, Mansour Seck and singer Youssou N’Dou both from Senegal come from traditional Griot castes”. However, an angle that a lot of people don’t tend to take is seeing some conscious musicians as “Griots of the diaspora” (with no disrespect to the beautiful people of West Africa), but artistes such as Akala, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Talib Kweli, Common and a whole host of others can be said to provide a reflection of the times as the utterly brilliant Nina Simone once put it. This is not to make a like-for-like comparison as there’s an abundance of differences but I do believe it is important for artistes to be wary of the importance of their platform and how they intend to use it.

Retaining a sense of self in a world designed to strip you of it or demonize you if you refuse to relinquish it is very difficult but becoming more aware of the importance of determining one’s own narrative is a step in the right direction. One way of doing that is learning from the Griots, not to just reduce history to big words, textbooks and infallible figures that no one can relate to but to humanize and intrinsically tie it to everyday life allows it to have a far longer lifespan as music very really becomes outdated or loses its value.

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