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empty Posted September 2003

African Oral Tradition
By Sharon Wilson
Chicago, IL

In African societies, oral tradition is the method in which history, stories, folktales and religious beliefs are passed on from generation to generation. Webster's dictionary defines "oral" as, "spoken rather than written," and it defines the word "tradition" as, "transmittal of elements of a culture from one generation to another especially by oral communication."

For the African people, oral tradition is linked to their way of life. Most African societies place great worth in oral tradition because it is a primary means of conveying culture. It is also a mode of transmitting feelings, and attitudes. For centuries, African people depended upon oral tradition to teach the listener's important traditional values and morals pertaining to how to live. Oral tradition delivers explanations to the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life on earth. In African religion, it is the guiding principle in which to make sense of the world.

Oral tradition is non-written history, it is spoken word only. Historically, most African societies did not have an invented alphabet. African scholar and writer, John S. Mbiti asserts:

...Most African people did not invent an alphabet for the art of reading and writing. Therefore they could not keep written records of their history. Instead they passed on information form one generation to another, by word of mouth.[1]

The human voice is the key element in Oral tradition. Africans have been primarily vocal people throughout their history. Language is regarded as a powerful force. Although there are many ethnic languages that coexist in Africa, (researchers say there may be as many as 1000), African stories and folklore were communicated across different regions. Oral tradition relies on the human voice to communicate varied messages. Dr. Vincent Muli Wa Kituku explains:

Voice was the vehicle in which knowledge was passed on from one generation to another. Voice unified a family, clan, or community. Enforcement of customs depended on voice. When a person died...his or her voice was no longer to be heard, it was as if a whole library had been destroyed. Voice is important.[2]

Another integral part of Oral tradition is the integrating of music. Music plays an important role in African societies. According to Mbiti, "Africans are very fond of music. Therefore music, dance and singing are found in every community."[3]

Music also transmits knowledge and values, and it is way of celebrating important community and personal events. Combined with oral tradition and dance, a visual art form is created for the message being communicated.

The most important musical instrument of Africa is the drum. It has been said that no one knows how the drum came into being or how the first drum looked or sounded. Drums accompany different forms of communication, including storytelling, singing, and dancing. Drums are made in different sizes and shapes for different purposes.

Mbiti explains:

We also find many kinds of musical instruments, the commonest being the drum. There are drums of many shapes, sizes, and purposes. Some drums are used only in connection with kings and chiefs: the royal drums are often considered sacred and may not be played commonly or by anybody. There are war drums, talking drums, ceremonial drums, and so on.[4]

Although the drum is the primary musical instrument and it is used to send and receive messages, it is also essential in the preservation of Oral tradition. In African religion the drum is considered sacred. It is used to send and receive spiritual messages. Because the drum is sacred, the drummer must be skilled as an oral communicator, and skilled at the art of drumming. Precise rhythms are connected with religious ceremony and ritual as well as entertainment. Jacob K. Olupona declares:

...For the African the drum is sacred. Created by god-like humans, and the drummer is a speaker and communicator of the sacred fixed text...the drummer can be compared to a poet. Just as the poet uses his voice to entertain people, so the drummer uses the drum to entertain. The drummer therefore must not be regarded as a technician alone; he is an artist in his own right. Even if the texts are fixed and unchanging, he still has to learn the words and acquire the special art of drumming. If he is not a good artist, the message cannot be reproduced fully. In addition, on the issue of the language of the drum being fixed, it was observed that while there may be some sets of phrases, proverbs, and wise sayings that form the drummer's repertoire, the drummer is free to improvise in-between in order to make his message fit the particular occasion.[5]

Africans value Oral tradition more than any other culture. No person is more valued within a tribal group than the Griot (pronounced gree'oh). Griots have been said to be living archives, the links to the past.

To be continued.

Sharon Wilson is a student at St. Xavier University in Chicago. This article is used by permission.

[1] John S. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1975) 4.
[2] Vincent Muli Wa Kituku, East African Folktales (Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc., 1997) Preface.
[3] Mbiti 9.
[4] Mbiti 9.
[5] Jacob K. Olupona, African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1991), 7.

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