World 101: Griots
by Rachel Devitt | February 8, 2014
Dusty history books? Family albums? Online ancestry traces? How about a song written to archive and celebrate the legacy of your family or hometown by your own personal singer-songwriter-historian? That was the original role of the class of musical professionals found throughout West Africa often called griots or djelis. Equal parts genealogist, advisor and musician, these musical storytellers (who hailed from families with generations of griots in them) created praise songs that served as oral histories of kings and nobility. Centuries of culture and histories of the Mandé, Fula, Songhai, Wolof and others were carefully preserved and passed on in these songs. Musicologists have argued that griot traditions provided the foundation for everything from contemporary Afropop to the blues.
Many of today's leading Afropop stars come from griot families, from Baaba Maal to Habib Koité, who grew up accompanying his griot mother's performances. Other artists from griot backgrounds, such as Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko and Bassekou Kouyate, keep traditional and folk music alive, sometimes drawing out connections to the blues. And like Koite's mother, many griots still work in more traditional roles, crafting songs for special occasions, performing at weddings and singing histories of families and villages -- some, such as Sali Sidibe and Papa Susso, achieving enough renown to become recording artists themselves. The ancient traditions are becoming fashionable again: High-profile people in urban locales have been known to hire their own personal griots. The tradition is not without controversy, though: Debate has ensued over everything from the griot's elite position in society to the difficulty non-griots can have breaking into music to the term itself (largely a Western invention). But the legacy and significance of these musician-historians is undeniable -- and the diverse musics they have created and influenced will take your breath away.