The Faye Family and The Géwël Tradition

October 20, 2009

The first event of the Faye family’s distinguished Visiting Scholar residency was a lecture by Suffolk University Professor,  Robert A. Bellinger. His lecture, on October 8,  introduced the university to the Faye family and to the Géwël tradition that they are responsible for. The lecture is built around three stories – one from the distant past, one from the recent past and the third from the present. This is the text of the presentation.

The Faye Family and the Géwël Tradition

This story is carried by the harmatan winds from somewhere before the present time, when the foundations of today’s reality were laid on the sands of the Cap Vert peninsula. This is no ordinary story. This is a story that needs to be told many times. Among the Bambara of eastern Senegal and Mali there is a saying:

Great things do not happen every day, so when they do we speak of them for generations.

This is a story that has been recounted for generations. This is a story of a family with roots in Baoule in the region of Sine Saloum, the Serer state. The Serer, who maintained political, religious and cultural independence through the nineteenth century, are the third largest ethnic group in Senegal. It is from the Serer state of Sine Saloum that Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of the independent state of modern Senegal, was born. It is also the region that the sabar tradition has its roots.

This is also a story about the Lebu people, the principal inhabitants of the Cap Vert peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, marking the westernmost point of Africa.  As fishermen, the Lebu knew the ocean, especially since tradition holds that they arrived to fish these waters perhaps two thousand years ago. And though they lived in close proximity to other ethnic groups – Peul, Tukulor, Serer – they maintained their own identity and distinct cultural practices.

Many years ago, perhaps it was in the 18th century, a member of the Paye family, one of the noble families of the Lebu, was about to take a journey into the interior of the country. She had a sore on her leg that the best efforts of the healers of her community had not been able to heal. She was told that on her journey she should seek out a géwël family to stay with, for they would have the knowledge of how to cure her leg. While on her journey she stayed with the Faye géwël family. A member of the family was able to heal her leg and she was so grateful that she married him. This happened in the distant past, before the independence of the Lebu republic from the kingdom of Cayor, before the time of Biram Gueye Faye, the first Baj Géwël Ndakarou Jal Joop.

There is significant information about the géwël tradition and the Faye family embedded in this story. One important element that is central to Senegalese society is that of taranga, or the sense of hospitality that one extends to guests. The existence of taranga is a central part of this story, particularly in relation to the géwël. Before embarking on her journey the Paye noblewoman was advised to stay with a géwël family. This is evidence of a widespread understanding that one could expect to receive taranga when visiting other regions of West Africa especially in the home of a géwël family.

But the Paye noble woman was not only advised to seek out a géwël family for the hospitality that would be offered. She was also told that the géwël would be able to heal her leg, so the medicinal knowledge of the géwël was recognized. This is one of the many realms of knowledge that géwëls specialize in – healing. Their knowledge was evidently extensive for her leg had not been healed by anyone within her home community. However, the géwël family she stayed with was able to heal her.

In the final part of the narrative, the Paye noble woman marries the géwël out of gratitude. This marriage created a union between the Lebu Paye and the Serer Faye families. The Lebu did not have a tradition of géwëls within their own society so this union provided a connection for the Lebu to géwëls and their skills. It also created a union between a noble family (Paye) and a géwël family (Faye). So while the Faye family is géwël, they are also noble.

This next section of the story opens in the early nineteenth century at the start of the Lebu Republic under the leadership of Jaal Joop. Though fiercely independent the Lebu on the Cap Vert peninsula were uncomfortably subjected to the kingdom Cayor. Dissatisfaction with the rule of the Damel of Cayor led to an alliance between the Lebu and muslim clerics who, fleeing persecution had settled on the peninsula. Jaal Joop (1790-1812) led the battle against the ceedo regime of Cayor forcing the Damel to acknowledge defeat, establishing the Lebu republic. The marabouts who had sought refuge on the peninsula proclaimed Jaal Joop the Serigne Ndakarou of this newly independent Lebu Republic. The present history of the Faye family, begins around this time, in the early 19th century. This was when Biram Gueye Faye became the first Baj Gëwél Ndakarou Jal Joop – the first Grand Gèwël of Dakar.

Baj Géwël Ndakarou Jal Joop was a very significant role. The Baj Géwël not only had the responsibility for the historic and genealogical foundations of the Lebu Republic, but was responsible for the cultural and spiritual traditions as well.

Getting up from the mat in his room, Biram Gueye Faye walked to the chair and picked up his top. He pulled the tunic over his head and adjusted the amulets which sat beneath the cool fabric. The white cotton of the tunic stood out brightly against the black chia-type pants he wore. Picking up his white hat with black embroidery, he stepped out of his room. As he walked to the main entrance of his compound he placed his hat so that it sat at an angle atop his head. The compound was quiet. It was usually calm after the lunch meal, but rarely was it quiet. As he reached the compound’s entrance he stepped out onto the road, feeling the full heat of the afternoon sun. He raised his right hand to his forehead, shading his eyes as he looked at the sky over Soumbidioune. After a few minutes he turned and headed back into the compound to begin preparations for the Bawnane, the ceremony of prayers to God and the spirit protectors of the Cap Vert peninsula.

Biram Gueye Faye was carrying out the responsibilities of his position of Baj Géwël Ndakarou Jaal Joop. Baj Géwël was

a title awarded by the Lebou community to the principle griot in charge of transmitting to the generations the authentic or genuine Senegalese traditions. [Mamadou L. Dieye, Sing Sing Rhythm: Myth, Brand Name, Trademark or Art?]

In much of pre-colonial West Africa, society was highly structured. In Senegal there was a social hierarchy composed of two broad categories – géér and neeño. The géér are usually defined as the nobles and professionals. From this group come kings, and other nobles, as well as farmers, the freeborn tillers of the soil. The neeños are broadly defined as the artisans. Among the Wolof this includes the smiths (who work in iron, silver, gold and other metals), weavers, and the leather workers. There is also the géwël, who make their living by their word.  Often described as a bard or historian, the role of the géwël is much more complex. Djibi Joop Faye, a member of the Sing Sing family, said, “the big géwël looks like a journalist” [Djibi Diop Faye, interview by R. Bellinger, August 9, 2006] This comment is related to the géwëls role in observing and reporting events, at keeping the community informed. Also, as repositories of information, they provide a reference point for the community as it moves forward in time.

The géwël, or griot, was one of the most important of the neeños because their “ritual chants, music and exhortations were an essential part of every public ceremony and festival. . . the griots most important function was their traditional task of memorizing and reciting the oral history and noble genealogies of Senegal.” (G. Wesley Johnson, Jr., The Emergence of Politics in Senegal, the Struggle for Power in the Four Communes, 1900-1920, 1971, 15) By looking at descriptions of the géwël over time one can get a sense of the importance of the géwël and the complexity of his role.

A description from a 1935 text gives a very colorful description of the griot’s role in Wolof society:

Griots are by tradition attached to families; they are family jesters and buffoons with unlimited license, whose duty it is to keep the company amused; they are the family bards, who learn and recite the family and national history. . . and the traditional stories and fables; . . . they are family magicians who must be present at all ceremonies and whose advice must be taken; they are the first to hold the newborn baby and the last to touch the corpse. . . they are the spiritual mentors and guides of the young (griots are of both sexes); they are the woman’s hairdressers; they console the mourner and comfort the downcast with music and song; they are the family’s official boasters, singing their merits, triumph and wealth on public occasions. . . {Geoffrey Gorer, Africa Dances, 53]

Mamadou “Thiona” Ndiaye, eldest son of Doudou Ndiaye Rose, when asked what it meant to be géwël, said:

In ancient times there were councils who gave the Burr advice and told him what was right and wrong. The géwël was with the Burr all the time, even living with him, so they were like chiefs, but they were really advisors. They went in front of the people who went into battle to play to give encouragement to the warriors so they were also warriors. Since war is a dangerous place to be they were also courageous. After the battle it was the géwël who would tell the history of the event and recount the brave deeds.

Thomas Hale identified thirteen different roles that the griot plays. According to Hale, the griot is genealogist, historian, advisor, spokesperson, mediator, interpreter, musician, teacher, exhorter, warrior, witness, praise-singer, and ceremony participant.

These comments provides a clearer sense of the wide ranging responsibilities and tasks of the géwël or griot. Most importantly, in all of the roles they fulfill, the géwël brings the community together; a community that is not only comprised of the present, but also of the ancestors whose names, through recitation and repetition, have been kept alive by the géwël. At important life events and celebratory moments, from birth through death, it is the géwël who mediates between the various energies of this world and the spiritual world. It is through the use of music and movement that the dialogue is extended beyond the present realm, into what Nigerian author Wole Soyinka calls the “fourth dimension” “the place where creativity exists and transformation takes place.” (Nailah Randall Bellinger, interview, October 2009)

Understanding the multifaceted role of the géwël makes it possible to understand the significance of the Baj Géwël.

The history in Senegal, you know, that’s my family. . . If you say about the géwël here in Senegal your mind is thinking about the Sing Sing family. You have to. [Djibi Diop Faye, interview by R. Bellinger, August 9, 2006]

Vieux Sing Faye provided the following information about the Baj Géwël:

I am a descendant of Biram Gueye Faye, first Baj Géwël of Dakar, the ancient Lebou republic of Dakar. The title that I carry is hereditary. I am the present Baj Géwël: a distinction that makes me a dignitary in the collectivity of the caste of griots. I am, in my field, the same rank as that of Saltigue or the Serigne of Dakar. The Baj Géwël traditionally has a relation with the genie protector of Dakar, named Lak Daour. He has a shrine at my place. I serve as the oracle passing on to the grand Serigne of Dakar, the prescriptions and recommendations required by the genie for the protection of the community. This heritage I carry in my blood. [Paroles de Griot, interview by El Hadji Momar Sambe, September 2001]

This was reiterated in an interview with one of his sons, Djibi Diop Faye:

You know Luk Daro Mbaye? Yes he talk with my grand grand father. And he talks with Maam Sing Sing. . .he talk to him and he talk to the people, you know, to let the people know. Because he take care of. . . Dakar, you know. That’s why here in Senegal the Sing Sing family has a big responsibility. [Djibi Diop Faye, interview by R. Bellinger, August 9, 2006]

For the Sing Sing family, their responsibility is to maintain balance for the whole of the Cap Vert peninsula and thus all of Dakar. In their work they provide a sense of connectedness with the past, a continuation of tradition and the creative energy that drives the celebration of life in the present.

Most importantly the géwël maintains many of the values central to Senegal; values that serve as ruling principles of society and that have a role in harmonizing across generations.

One afternoon six year old Abdoulaye was busy. Most afternoons he was engaged in his favorite activity – playing drum music. As a child he didn’t have a drum so he made do with empty cans or plastic containers. But he played. Whether with an impromptu ensemble of playmates or by himself, he played. But today was different. Today Abdoulaye was busy trying to dominate a smaller boy and take his ball away. Upon seeing this Abdoulaye’s uncle called him over. What are you doing? he asked as the boy approached with his head bowed. The uncle gently placed his hand on Abdoulaye’s chin, raised his head until their eyes met and asked: “Are you a bandit or a percussionist?”

The juxtaposition posed by the question demands a choice; and that choice embodies values. To be a percussionist, the main activity of the géwël, requires that one adheres to those values. One must not only understand but embody values such as maasala (keeping the peace/harmony; smoothing things over), and kóllëré (relationship of mutual respect, trust and friendship); one must strive to be a nit ku bax (an honorable man; one who is honest, brave, and generous).

The final word on the role of the Baj Géwël in maintaining these significant values is from Vieux Sing Faye the present Baj Géwël Ndakarou:

Today the people don’t respect much the tradition and abandon the spirits. The consequence is a loss of values and the dissolution of morals. . . But I remain attached to these values and try to transmit them to my children. [Paroles de Griot, interview by El Hadji Momar Sambe, September 2001]

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