November 19, 2008

It has been a long time since the last posting on this blog. During that time work on the géwël tradition has continued. I am back to active postings now and will try to provide a sense of new developments. Today’s posting, a Pan African Diasporan view of the griot tradition, was first developed last fall during a visit to Boston by Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Sankofa and the Griot Concept

Sankofa . One must return to the past in order to move forward.

Since the 1993 release of the film Sankofa by Haile Gerima, many people are familiar with the concept of Sankofa and its accompanying Adinkra symbol of a bird with its head turned back. For the Akan this motif symbolizes the philosophical relationship between the past and the present. The bird is turned back because it is picking important elements from the past to bring into the present, so that they can be utilized to step forward and meet the future.

The ability to mediate between past and the present is the province of the griot.

The work of the griot is a celebration of the ancestors through recalling, remembering, recollecting, reclaiming, and recognizing. . . . each retelling of an epic or other historic event is, in actuality, a reliving of that event. So each time it is necessary to create the scenario, to bring the listener into the event so that they may take part in its recreation. The past is being brought forward into the present, and the listener is being taken back to the past event; where they meet, the recreation – the Lieux de memoir – takes place.

(Introduction, unpublished manuscript, by Robert A. Bellinger)

Looking to the past to make sense of the present, or to retrieve important cultural elements, is also a reality for the Pan African Diaspora. The men, women and children who were taken away from the African continent were physically separated from their homelands and traditions, but they remained psychically connected. The Sankofa ideal and the griot concept, therefore, both resonate with particular strength in that diaspora. Those who crossed the ocean were subject to experiences that were as unique as they were horrendous and terrifying. They were witnesses to, and repositories for that history.

The significance of this is presented in the novel Someone Knows My Name. The novel is built around the main character, Aminata Diallo, who carries the reader with her as she recounts the events of her long life. Early in the story, when she is being stolen away to slavery, Aminata called upon the griot concept as a survival mechanism.

When I was carried up the ladder and dropped like a sack of meal on the deck of the toubabu’s ship, I sought comfort by imagining that I had been made a djeli, and was required to see and remember everything. My purpose would be to witness, and to prepare to testify. (56)

During the voyage Aminata engaged in several griot activities, in addition to that of witness. She also acts as an intermediary, an interpreter, a genealogist, a praise singer, and an exhorter. Over the course of the story she also becomes a storyteller and historian. Taken from her Mande homeland Aminata Diallo takes on many griot roles out of necessity. Adaptations such as these changed but also preserved the griot concept in the Pan African Diaspora.

Last fall I encountered two uses of the griot concept represented on CDs that were released. The first was a CD by Les Nubians, the African sisters in Europe who have developed what they call an “Afropean” sound. Titled Echos – Chapter One: Nubian Voyager the CD features the poetry and spoken word of artists they met while on tour. In the accompanying booklet they explain their take on the griot concept.

Les Nouveaux Griots.

The New Griots.

The Griot, Memory of the family, the village. Witness and chronicler. Oral librarian. Sacred entertainer for the most important moments of your life, cheerfully for the best, spiritual and comforting for the worse.

Ahmadou Hampate Ba, The Last Poets, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou. . . showed to the way of this noble and ancestral discipline of free speech.

Here is the new generation of Griots, MC’s, slammers, singers, urban poets, underground poets, modern poets. . . let’s say poets. Or Noveaux



(Les Nubians, presents Echos, chapter 1, Nubian Voyager)

This is a recognition and praise to the role of the griot, particularly their skill in the use of language. In addition it is an identification of those who have carried on the work of the griot and served as a bridge to the griot tradition while also claiming this role for a new generation. In this instance Les Nubians are bringing forth a traditional concept so that it can be utilized and applied by a new generation. Like Aminata Diallo, they take on griot activity outside of the griot homeland.

The second example of the griot concept is from Dee Dee Bridgewater whose CD Red Earth – Malian Journey was released last fall. The result of her exploration of personal connections to Mali, the CD brings together Ms. Bridgewater’s jazz band and some of Mali’s extremely talented musicians. The interplay of these two groups of musicians is fresh and exciting and provides good examples of the bringing together of two musical traditions without diminishing either. The result is a powerful collection of music that shows the clear link in the roots of West African and African American music traditions. More importantly, in creating some wonderfully powerful and beautiful music, Dee Dee also manages to give “praise to the tradition of the griot” which she does on several levels.

On one level she makes use of material from the Malinke griot repertoire. Three of the songs on the CD – “Bani (Bad Spirits),” “Sakhodougou (The Griots),” and “Massane Cissé (Red Earth)” originated in the 12th and 13th centuries and are told in the oral tradition of the Griots. She extends this by adding lyrics in English to the songs. On Sakhodougou she sings:

The customs of the land

Passed on to each generation

Speak volumes of our past and of our ancestors

Sacred stories of the motherland

Praise the traditions of the Griots

[The Griots (Sakhodougou)]

The song is a praise song to the griots and the significance of their role. In singing it, Dee Dee is taking on the role of griot as an extension of the praise she is giving. By singing their praises, introducing them to her audience, and generally honoring them she is being a griot for them.

On the most basic level, along with using the material and tools of the griot, Dee Dee Bridgewater included several griots on this project. Appearing on this CD are djeli singers Fatoumata “Mama” Kouyaté, the “golden voice of Mali,” Kassé Mady Diabaté, and Kabiné Kouyaté; they are accompanied by djeli musicians Bassékou Kouyaté, Toumani Diabaté, and Baba Sissoko, who Dee Dee considers her personal Griot.

On Red Earth Dee Dee Bridgewater engages in remembering, recalling, retrieving, reviving, retelling, recreating, and ultimately reifying the griot concept. This provides a platform for those of griot lineage to present their tradition in a modern form.

The concept of griot has expanded beyond its geographic homelands and will continue to evolve as adjustments are made to changing realities.


2 Responses to “”

  1. Steve Says:

    Wow! A beautiful essay on the role of the griot, and the appearance of griots in modern culture. I’m especially interested in the griot aspects of hip-hop MC’s (*not* the kind you see on MTV, the kind you hear in small clubs and street corners). Ben Herson at Nomadic Wax explores this a little bit, and his record label brings hip hop music from the African continent to American ears…

  2. Njing aka RAM 3 Says:

    I found this entry to be very enlightening. I have not read the novel Someone Knows My Name but it is now on my reading list. I am very interested with the gewel tradition in a modern context and look forward to additional information. I will have to obtain the Bridgewater and the Les Nubians CDs. I share your enthusiasm on this subject and find your writing to be of the essence of the Sankofa experience.

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