By Vicki Fong
The ancient West African profession of griots and griottes -- individuals who orally pass on history -- can be traced back nearly 1,000 years, yet these esteemed historians-musicians are thriving and expanding their audiences, with the help of modern technology such as the Internet and communications satellites.
"Widely popularized by Alex Haley's narrative 'Roots,' griots are best known outside Africa for genealogy and musical performances," said Thomas Hale, professor of African, French and comparative literature. "But over the centuries, they have performed a variety of important functions for African rulers and communities -- providing advice, serving as a spokesperson, reporting news and praise-singing -- that served as a social glue for African societies.
"No profession in any other part of the world is charged with such wide-ranging and intimate involvement in the lives of the people," he said. "What distinguishes griots from poets in the Western tradition is that the speech of these African wordsmiths combines both poetic art and, in many cases, a much less clearly defined occult power that listeners respect and sometimes fear. This verbal art ranges from short praise songs for people in society today to long epics about heroes of the past."
Hale first encountered griots in 1964. He has conducted extensive research on these artisans of the word since 1980 and has written a comprehensive portrait of their history and their activities in the new book Griots and Griottes, recently published by Indiana University Press. He also describes the world of female griots, or griottes, who are not as well known outside of Africa as the men.
In modern times, the griots' expansion from the courtyards of West African nobility to a global audience occurred slowly at first with the introduction of the railroad and the automobile, according to Hale.
"Air travel in the 1950s greatly increased their performance opportunities and contexts, followed by the benefits of radio and tape recorders in the 1960s and 1970s, allowing more people to hear the griots' work," he said. "Television, the communications satellite and the Internet are now helping to create a global audience for griots."
Another example of technology's impact: the evolution of the musical instruments as newer materials become available and cost-effective. Griots are adding amplifiers to their instruments so they can play before audiences in larger venues. Nylon fishing line, which lasts longer and is easier to obtain, has replaced strips of antelope hide on the 21-stringed kora, an instrument played by many griots.
Such shifts lead to concerns over the potential loss of traditional values and styles, but perhaps they are inevitable in order for griots to reach their global audiences, Hale said. They are in demand not only for performances before expatriate African communities in the United States and Europe, but also before audiences hungry for world culture and music.
"Griots may be vehicles for conveying the past to the present, but they are no more locked into traditional technology than the blacksmith who discovers welding or the weaver who adopts color-fast thread," he said. "Where it suits their needs, many griots have embraced modern technology without hesitation.
"The traditional nature of the profession masks an inherent adaptability that has enabled griots to survive for so many centuries through the political phases of colonialism, independence and neocolonialism as well as the many waves of Islamic and Western cultural influences that continue to sweep across the Sahel and Savanna regions today," said Hale.
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