Ngéwël and the Art of Praise

October 28, 2011

Great events do not occur every day, 

Therefore we sing of them for generations. (1)

To sing about great events is to remember the events and their significance. It is also to remember and recall the people who took part in the events and accomplished the deeds remembered. And in so remembering, one engages in the act of praising.

To praise is to honor, to recognize, to pay tribute, to celebrate. Praise can also serve the purpose of lifting a person’s spirits or encouraging someone in a difficult undertaking. In West Africa when a praise is sung, for in West Africa praises are not merely spoken but sung, it is not a casual undertaking.

To praise, in the Géwël tradition is to engage in a highly creative act of artistry that not only involves the person who is being praised at the moment. It is also for that persons family, both nuclear and extended; it is for their ancestors and their community. It honors, recognizes, celebrates and pays tribute to the person’s whole lineage and the history of that lineage. A praise is no small thing.

Praise can involve a verbalizing of a persons deeds or accomplishments, a remembrance of acts of generosity, a recitation of a persons lineage with reference to qualities and behavior patterns that are considered familial or all of these things.

In the Nile Valley traditions, which are foundational to most African cultures, words played very important roles. In this tradition, divine words (medw nwchter) and words of beauty (medw nefer) were inseparable. Words were not just tools of expression but were instruments of the divine or Godly; and all words were imbued with beauty, so the art of speaking involved divine power and human eloquence. The ability to speak eloquently and to inject divine energy into the words being spoken is at the center of the artistry that the Géwël uses in giving praise. The power to imbue each word with divine energy or life force which the griot brings to the process of praising is described in the following passage:

“The griot has called the weight of extraordinary achievement from the distant past into the living present of the noble ‘descendant,’ a juxtaposition which invites comparison, thus encouraging the noble to swell with pride at the thought of being on par with such heroism, or to sink with shame at the thought that his/her own reputation will not stand up to the scrutiny – in either case, the emotion thus stirred is dripping with nyama.” (2)

The Géwël Tradition also involves praises that are given in extra-verbal ways. For instance when a person of significance arrives at an event, the drummers will play a specific rhythm as a recognition of the arriving person.

Praise is a recognition of significance, of importance, of value. Thus the ability to praise provides the Géwël a very important role in the society. Praises may be sung for important people of the past ensuring that they will be remembered in the present;  or they may sing to people of the present providing them with recognition during their lifetime. But the Géwël is not limited to praising people, especially in the present era. Praises may be sung to give recognition or support to a political organizations or to recount the important history of a country. A Géwël may also sing praises to himself or herself to make it known how skilled they are at what they do.

The following video is of Amdy Moustapha Fall singing a praise song to Robert Sipho Faye Bellinger at the Faye Family compound in Medina, Dakar, Senegal in the spring of 2009.

Notes

1 From a song by a Bard of Segu as quoted by Harold Courlander  in The Heart of the Ngoni.

2 Nyama is the life force that exists in everything. Barbara Hoffman, “Power, Structure, and Mande Jeliw,” (42), in Conrad and Frank, Indiana University Press (1995). Quoted in Thomas A. Hale, Griots and Griottes (120), Indiana University Press, 1998.

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