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empty Posted October 2003

African Oral Tradition Part Two
By Sharon Wilson
Chicago, IL

Griots, or storytellers, are revered orators who memorize important events. Generations upon generations before the written word, there was the spoken word. These fascinating individuals delivered the spoken word. The Griot (or Bard as they are also referred to) is trained for years in order to master the complex role of the tribal historian. Professor Cora Agatucci says, "...the most accomplished storytellers are initiates (Griots or bards), who have mastered many complex verbal, musical, and memory skills after years of specialized training."6

Griots are a significant part of oral tradition. They ensure and protect the culture and values of the African people. They tell of great African civilizations and empires, calamities, wars and invasions. Any event relevant to African history, ancestors, genealogies, births, and marriages could be recalled by a Griot. Their professionalism enabled them to speak for hours, even days, as they drew on their practiced memorization of history. However, anything pertaining to life can be filled with trial and error. Oral tradition permits the expression and preservation of the elements of civilization, and because the messengers are human beings, Griots may forget or confuse information after repeated telling. Mbiti explains:

In some societies there have been keepers of oral tradition, whose duty was to memorize and recite historical and other relevant information. Many things were forgotten or confused in repeated telling, but tradition is better than nothing, and some valuable information has reached us through this method, though in some cases it is difficult to tell the truth from the fictitious.7

Agatucci adds in regard to Griots:

Orators, like the culture that produce them, constantly evolve and change across time, culture, place and regional style, performer, and audience for a variety of reasons. For example, if a story loses its relevance because of changing values and social conditions, it is discarded or modified, and new stories are born. As scholars and transcribers attest, even the same gifted African oral storyteller does not simply memorize and repeat the same way each time. Griots will alternate between set text and improvisation. Within open-ended narrative and poetic formulas, the bard creates, embellishes, adapts to the occasion, and plays to the need and interests of particular audiences.8

Griots are known as professional historians and storytellers. They are servants of their communities. They train many years to perfect their skills as teachers of African history and as storytellers. Usually the sons of the Griots take the role of becoming the next Griot. The duty of these individuals was so important in time past, that if his message were inaccurate he would risk being killed. Despite the risks, these individuals continued to serve as historians, teachers, and storytellers as they remained deeply involved in the life of the community and of each individual.

These "living archives" are masters of memory. They are amazing examples of the capacity of human memory. They have the creative ability to combine their voice, the drum, with their body language in transmitting the spoken word. Facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements increase the power of their message.

Griots were in service for everybody to explain the origin of somebody whenever possible. The role of the Griot influenced renowned author, Alex Haley to construct his family's history. Haley traveled to Africa to visit a Gambian village of Juffure, where he hear a Griots account of his family's origins in Africa, and the capture of his ancestor Kunte Kinte. One source explains:

These Griots, as Alex Haley discovered while researching his family's history, are able to bring the past alive and empower their listeners not only to discover their pasts but also to recover memories of their ancestors. Enchanted with their ability to convey culture and experience with the spoken word, Haley became a modern-day Griot and recorded his family's saga in his fictionalized novel of Roots. In 1986, Haley told Ebony, 'I acknowledge immense debt to the Griot (tribal poet) of Africa--where today it rightly said that when a Griot dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground'.9

The Griots of oral tradition ensure and protect the culture and values of the African people. African culture relies on the tradition to pass on history, religion, and stories, which touch the people with facts about who they are as a people. The Griots role transcends the land and the people of Africa and reaches out to the whole world conveying the message, Africa is more cultural and sophisticated than our history books taught us to imagine.

To be continued...on

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

[6] Cora Agatucci, African Storytelling: Oral Traditions
( 2003, Mar 8)
[7] Mbiti 4-5
[8] Agatucci web page
[9] The Purpose of Parables ( 2003 March 8).

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