Keepers of History

Who holds your history?

African woman and men with guitar-like instrumentRichard 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.

In return for their services, griots receive gifts. There is no set fee. They never know what they will get. Sometimes a few coins, sometimes a blanket, sometimes much more. In one reported case, a wealthy admirer gave the Malian griotte Kandia Kouyaté a small airplane so that she could fly directly to his airstrip whenever he wanted to hear the praise song she had written for him.

man interviews older African man among the communityThomas A. Hale

Griots hold the memory of West Africa. At the festival marking the installation of a regional chief in Faraba Banta on October 1991 (previous page), griotte Adama Suso sings and Ma Lamini Jobarth plays the kora. Above, Tom Hale interviews griot Ayouba Tessa in 1981.

Good griots must have remarkable memories and be ever ready to recite or sing long histories, genealogies, and praise songs. They must also be musically talented. Hale describes their training as comparable to that of receiving a doctoral degree. To become a griot you must learn genealogies and histories, but not just the words, also the music. You can't separate the musical art from the vocal art without losing the overall effect. Griots often play a 21-stringed instrument called a kora. The kora is described as a bridge-harp with two rows of strings, one on either side of the meter-long neck, and a body made of a calabash. The sound of the kora has no American equivalent, and is as unusual as its structure. Hale describes it as sounding "a little bit like flamenco guitar," and in fact griot Keba Cissoko played the kora in this January's New York Guitar Festival's Guitar Marathon.

Training for a griot begins within the family unit, with boys and girls learning from their griot parents, and then moves on to a formal griot school, and then to an apprenticeship with a master griot. Both boys and girls can train to be griots, although griottes may have less freedom to travel and train because of family obligations.

Who holds your history? Who tells your story? Who is your voice?

Until Hale began researching the songs of the griotte in 1991, most research focused on the male griot, the assumption being that in patriarchal West Africa, the griotte played a lesser role, standing by while the griot recited, or perhaps singing only short choruses throughout a song.

It appeared that the women of West Africa had no voice. Hale and his former student, now colleague, Aissata Sidikou-Morton, believe that the reason we did not hear these female voices was that we weren't listening.

Sidikou-Morton, a native of Niger, came to Penn State to do her doctoral thesis on women singers in Niger, Senegal, and Gambia. "The West has said that African women never had a voice. They think that African women never had a voice because they never wrote it down," says Sidikou-Morton. She has been working to write down the songs of griottes and other female singers of West Africa because the people who know these songs are disappearing. "I want my children to know," she says. And she wants to show to the world the voice of African women.

"In African literature, orality is still the most important form of literature on the continent," Sidikou-Morton says, "because it is not everyone who can understand and read French and English. If you compare the oral literature here to the literature of other women in other cultures, you will see similarities. They are saying the same things about what it is like to be a woman, to be a human being.

"And the songs are beautiful and challenging—challenging to society, and challenging as a form of literature. With orality there is a lot women are saying. It is comparable to any written literature. It is expression, communication, and exchange."

Hale agrees. "The reality is that women do have voices in this region. If you study the texts of the songs women in these regions sing, you find that the songs reveal much about the women singing them. These women are empowered in what appears to be a male-dominated society. These songs are not simply entertainment," says Hale. "Women are saying something in these songs."

Griottes traditionally sing at ceremonies, celebrations, and special occasions. When a woman is to be married, griottes sing to her to prepare her for her new life. They sing to prepare her for the trouble she may encounter in the new marriage, and to reassure her that if it gets too bad, she can come home.

Do griottes sing epics? It is widely believed that the African epic, a long (sometimes hours, even days long) narrative of history and genealogy, battles and political uprisings, is sung only by griots, by the men. Women joined in only to sing certain parts or to play musical accompaniment. But Sidikou-Morton has recorded a griotte performing an epic, and both Hale and Sidikou-Morton have found that modern griottes are composing their own epics for African women.

man interviews older man with tape recorderThomas A. Hale

Tom Hale met with griot Ayouba Tessa again in Niger in 1987. Modern griots give new meaning to old words, a function Hale calls "time binding."

Another long poetic narrative form that West African women sing is called the saabi. The saabi reveals the nature of relationships between men and women. Sidikou-Morton describes the saabi as a "subversive epic," because it challenges male superiority.

In one saabi, called "The Wicked Man," a new bride, suspicious of her husband's intentions because he has divorced many women in the past, gets the jump on him before he can divorce her. She goes out to plant millet with him and as he walks in front of her digging holes for the seeds, she secretly throws the seeds away. When he believes the planting is done, he has no more use for his wife and so divorces her. But when he tells her to go, she tells him that she divorced him already.

She tells him to go to his farm in four days, and then he will know that she was the one who divorced him first. When he goes to his farm, he finds that, while all around him his neighbors have sprouts, he has none. The narrator explains the meaning:

Hale and Sidikou-Morton, now assistant professor of French at Princeton University, are working together on a project called "Women's Voices from West Africa" to collect and analyze praise songs, epics, and other poetic forms sung by women, not just griottes, but all women, in the West African Sahel and Savanna regions. West African women sing songs to give comfort, encouragement, and empowerment to other women, says Sidikou-Morton. They sing about independence and self-reliance. They sing about what it is like to be a woman in this society. They sing about relationships with husbands and with in-laws.

Many of the researchers involved in this project have come across women's songs in West Africa as a by-product of research on other features of the society. Others, like Sidikou-Morton, have studied the songs extensively. Out of their collaboration will come a volume of edited papers, a synthesis of all current research, an anthology of selected songs in English, Wolof, Bamana, and Hausa (languages of West Africa), and a Web site with the text of the songs, as well as video and audio snippets of griottes performing.

Hale believes that studying the texts of these songs, most of which are thus far untranslated and unpublished, could offer an understanding of what West African women are saying, and of how that reflects their role in society. "Women have always had power in society through singing. What we don't understand is the nature of that power. As we study all of the wedding songs across different regions, and if we find that they say the same thing, we may find that women collectively have far more power then anyone imagined."

Thomas A. Hale, Ph.D., is holder of the Liberal Arts professorship in African, French, and Comparative Literature, and head of the French department, College of the Liberal Arts, 314 Burrowes Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-865-8481; Aissata Sidikou-Morton, who received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Penn State in August of 1997, is assistant professor of French at Princeton University. "Women's Voices from West Africa" is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Last Updated May 01, 2002