September 6, 2007

It has been a long break since the last entry on this blog, but it has taken a while to shift gears from being in Dakar writing from a participatory perspective to being in Boston writing from a more cerebral perspective. I will give it my best effort. A question that is central to the Géwël Tradition Project and is continually being explored is: what is a géwël? This is a big question and I will not attempt to answer it definitively. I hope through this ongoing discussion to provide some understanding of this all important group in Senegal. Many people in the United States first became aware of the category of “griot” as a result of Alex Haley’s Roots. In addition to opening the door of possibility for Black Americans who believed it impossible to make specific African connections because all the tracks had been covered, he introduced the world to an African cultural milieu that few had imagined at the time. He not only presented a historical system through which the past could be learned, but he also presented a way of looking at the past that brought specific people to the fore; a system whereby the ancestors could be recalled, remembered, recollected and celebrated. The image of the “griot” which we have come to embrace is a limited one. The term conjures images of a wizened, older man, with the ability to recall and recite centuries of history for families and communities, usually to the accompaniment of a kora or other harp-like instrument. This is an accurate image of a “griot” however, it is not the only image of this class of people. It must be remembered that Alex Haley conducted his research in the Gambia, among the Mande, whose “griot” tradition does privilege the kora, and the recitation of genealogies and histories. And Haley, because of his research was most interested in the griots ability to serve as historian and genealogist. But he also recognized other aspects of the griot tradition. In an article that Alex Haley wrote about his book and his family (Black history, oral history and genealogy), he made reference to some of these other aspects.Haley was captivated by the power which the griot put into the words he spoke making his narration more than a mere retelling of a story. In speaking about the language abilities of the griot Haley said:“He spoke words as though they were physical objects coming out of his mouth.” (18)This speaks about what the Malinke tradition refers to as nyama, the energy that is found in every living being and which members of the artisan class know how to manipulate. The griot makes a living, not by the things he makes, but by the things he says, and thus, as Haley expresses, the griot has the ability to make words seem like physical objects. Words, when used by griots, become living things. In their hands history comes to life and those who are there to hear it become part of that history, so each time the story is told, it is a little different, yet it is still the same. This is the power of the griot. Haley also realized that the power of the griot to communicate was not limited to the use of the spoken word but included a wide range of communicative devices. About this he said:“And then there’s a language that’s universal. It’s a language of gestures, noise, inflections, expressions.” (18)The language of movement, and the ability of people to carry memory of movements in their cellular makeup, is something that has been studied and researched. Movement is one more text that must be read to get an understanding of African cultures in Africa and in the diaspora, and to understanding the relationship between those cultures.            This brings us closer to an understanding of the sabar géwël tradition. They do not use the voice as the central tool of their work. Géwëls are “masters of the sabar” as ethnomusicologist Patricia Tang says. They use sabar drums as their primary means of preserving and communicating cultural and traditional information. While this is the primary means of communicating this material, it is not the only means. They use dance as a communicative device as well. And in addition to speaking through dances and drums, géwëls do use their voices to praise, exhort, interpret and sing.