A griot (//; French pronunciation: [ɡʁi.o]), jali or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a societal leader due to his or her traditional position as an advisor to royal personages. As a result of the former of these two functions, he or she is sometimes also called a bard. According to Paul Oliver in his book Savannah Syncopators, "Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable". Although they are popularly known as "praise singers", griots may use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment. To learn more about this, please click here.
Griots today live in many parts of West Africa and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka, Malinké, Bambara, etc.), Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs and many other smaller groups. The word may derive from the French transliteration "guiriot" of the Portuguese word "criado", or masculine singular term for "servant". These story-tellers are more predominant in the northern portions of West Africa.
In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: jeli in northern Mande areas, jali in southern Mande areas, guewel in Wolof, gawlo in Pulaar (Fula), and iggawen in Hassaniyan. Griots form an endogamous caste, meaning that most of them only marry fellow griots and that those who are not griots do not normally perform the same functions that they perform.
Francis Bebey writes about the griot in his book African Music, A People's Art (Lawrence Hill Books):
"The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel... The griot knows everything that is going on... He is a living archive of the people's traditions... The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle. The profession is by no means a male prerogative. There are many women griots whose talents as singers and musicians are equally remarkable."
The Manding term jeliya (meaning "musicianhood") is sometimes used for the knowledge of griots, indicating the hereditary nature of the class. Jali comes from the root word jali or djali (blood). This word is also the title given to griots in areas corresponding to the former Mali Empire. Though the usage "griot" is far more common in English, some griot advocates such as Bakari Sumano prefer the term jeli.
The Mali Empire (Malinke Empire), at its height in the middle of the 14th century, extended from central Africa (today's Chad and Niger) to West Africa (today's Mali and Senegal). The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita, whose exploits remain celebrated in Mali today. In the Epic of Sundiata, King Naré Maghann Konaté offered his son Sundiata a griot, Balla Fasséké, to advise him in his reign. Balla Fasséké is considered the founder of the Kouyaté line of griots that exists to this day.
Each aristocratic family of griots accompanied a higher-ranked family of warrior-kings or emperors, called jatigi. In traditional culture, no griot can be without a jatigi, and no jatigi can be without a griot; the two are inseparable and worthless without the other. However, the jatigi can accept a "loan" of his griot to another jatigi.
Most villages also had their own griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and hundreds of other things.
In Mande society, the jeli was an historian, advisor, arbitrator, praise singer (patronage), and storyteller. Essentially, these musicians were walking history books, preserving their ancient stories and traditions through song. Their inherited tradition was passed down through generations. Their name, jeli, means "blood" in Manika language. They were said to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers as music is associated as such. Speech is said to have power as it can recreate history and relationships.
Despite the authority of griots and the perceived power of their songs, griots are not treated as positively in west Africa as we may imagine. In fact, as Thomas A. Hale puts it: " Another [reason for ambivalence towards griots] is an ancient tradition that marks them as a separate people categorized all too simplistically as members of a "caste," a term that has come under increasing attack as a distortion of the social structure in the region. In the worst case, that difference meant burial for griots in trees rather than in the ground in order to avoid polluting the earth (Conrad and Frank 1995:4-7). Today, although these traditions are changing, griots and people of griot origin still find it very difficult to marry outside of the group of artisans to which they belong." Fortunately, such discrimination is now deemed illegal.
In addition to being singers and social commentators, griots are often skilled musicians. Their instruments include the kora, the khalam (also spelled xalam), the goje (called n'ko in the Mandinka language), the balafon and the ngoni.
The kora is a long-necked lute-like instrument.with 21 strings. The xalam is a variation of the kora, and usually consists of less than 5 string. Both have gourd bodies that act as resonator. The ngoni is also similar to these two instruments, and has 5 to 6 strings. The balafon is a wooden xylophone, while the goje is a stringed instruments that is played with a bow, much like a fiddle.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: "West African plucked lutes such as the konting, khalam, and the nkoni (which was noted by Ibn Baṭṭūṭah in 1353) may have originated in ancient Egypt. The khalam is claimed to be the ancestor of the banjo. Another long-necked lute is the ramkie of South Africa."
Griots also wrote stories for their time that younger children enjoyed listening too. these stories were passed down from them to their kids and so on.
Today, performing is one of the most common functions of a griot. Their range of exposure has widened, and many griots now travel all over the world singing and playing the kora or other instruments. Bakari Sumano, head of the Association of Bamako Griots in Mali from 1994 to 2003, was an internationally-known advocate for the importance of the griot in West African society.