Who holds your history?
Richard K. Priebe
Griots hold the memory of West Africa. At the festival marking the installation of a regional chief in Faraba Banta in October 1991, griotte Adama Suso sings and Ma Lamini Jobareth plays the kora.
In West Africa, written history is something new. African history was written in European languages during the colonial era beginning in the late 1800s, and has been around in Arabic for centuries. But societies in the Sahel and Savanna regions of West Africa have long kept their own history, in their own languages, orally, in the form of epics.
Imagine relying on someone's memory to hold your people's history. In many parts of West Africa, this job is carried out by the griot.
Griots—masters of words and music, Tom Hale calls them in his book, Griots and Griottes—have been around for a millennium. Over time, the griots' function has changed as society evolved. Once, the male griots and female griottes were historians, genealogists, advisers to nobility, entertainers, messengers, praise singers—the list goes on. Today, they perform on television and radio and record CDs. Many are popular singers who reinterpret traditional songs, giving new meaning to old words—"time binding," Hale calls it. As performers, griots and griottes are in great demand, not only for ceremonies and parties in West Africa, where they have traditionally appeared, but all around the world. Here in the United States, they tour universities to give insight into West African culture. In a performance at Penn State in 1978, griotte Dionton Tounkara and her husband, Sekou Kouyaté performed a praise song naming some of the people in the audience, including Hale, who had invited the group.
Father of the poor people
Husband of beautiful ladies
At whose absence the city is not interesting
At whose absence the people are not happy
Be our mother
Be our father
Provide us with clothing
Be the salt we need for our gravy
Be the oil we need for our porridge
You are our eyes
You are our mirror
You are our hands and legs
That we use to walk.
Hale's career as a scholar of African literature began with a praise song like this one. From 1964 to 1966, after completing his B.A. in French at Tufts University, Hale volunteered with the United States Peace Corps and was sent to Niger, West Africa, to work with agricultural cooperatives in need of French speakers. Early one morning, strange sounds from the neighboring compound stirred him from sleep. He got up to investigate and found that a man was singing loudly to his next-door neighbor. "I didn't know what he was doing, so I asked him to shut up," Hale says. The singer ignored Hale and continued with his song. "So I went back and looked again, and there was my neighbor giving the man a large hand-woven blanket." The gift of the blanket was a form of thanks—reward for the griot's song. The incident would affect Hale's life for years to come.
He began teaching African literature at Penn State in 1973. In 1980, realizing that very few instructors were teaching literature from before the colonial era, he returned to Niger to study and record griot songs. "Few people in the west seemed to know much about the many functions of the griot, and I thought this may be a way of deepening the understanding of African literature."
Hale, now holder of the Liberal Arts professorship in African, French, and Comparative Literature, and head of the French department at Penn State, has been studying the epics of West Africa ever since. He returned to Niger yet again in 1987 and then again in 1989 to interview griots and griottes and research the texts of these long poetic narratives. He believes that by studying these epics, we can learn much about the way people view their past and achieve an understanding of their society today.
Who holds your history? Who tells your story?
The griot profession is inherited, passed on from one generation to the next. "Griots are very different from the rest of society—almost a different ethnic group," says Hale. They are both feared and respected by people in West Africa for their wisdom and talent with words. They can sing your praises, but they can also sing your doom.