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Griots in West Africa carry on singing their praises

by Ruth Evans

Griots, or praise singers, are the repository of West Africa's past, especially in areas that are primarily Islamic. The griot tradition is found across Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Mali, and in each place they form a distinct social caste. In Mali, they are said to provide this largely illiterate society with its moral roots, and provide an oral library of Mali's immensely complex and proud culture of great empires that have come and gone.

Mali: Habib Koite, one of the country's leading musicians, is from a griot family

The first commercial recordings of West African griot music were issued by the French ethnomusicologist Tolia Nikiprowetzky back in the 1960s, at a time when few people in the West had heard of griots. In answer to the question, "What is a griot?" he wrote, "The griots are above all professionals who represent, as a group, a well-defined social caste. Their role is multifaceted: as historians and genealogists they are the chief repositories of the history of a region and its designated chroniclers. As musicians their presence was traditionally required at all celebrations and rituals."

Griots are an essential element at all the great rites of passage in West Africa, at weddings, circumcision ceremonies, births, honours and funerals. They are generally paid well for their services - so much so that, according to Nikiprowetzky, in Senegal it was commonly held that griots' "exorbitant fees" were the reason "the ceremony of marriage has become, without doubt, the most financially ruinous of all traditional ceremonies."

Amy Koita

Amadou Maiga

Wider knowledge of the griots' role came largely through the international best seller and TV series of Alex Haley's Roots, in which he describes a journey to West Africa and, with the help of local griots, traces his family tree back to a particular village. Through the oral history of the griots, Haley said he had discovered how his ancestors had been tricked and sold into slavery. It was a highly emotional, if - as it turned out subsequently -only a partially true and embellished version of events, but it struck a chord with many Afro-Americans in search of their ancestral past, and brought the griots onto the international stage for the first time.

Even in modern Mali members of the noble caste often have a personal praise singer to remind them of their ancestry. Amadou Maiga, bottom right, who runs one of Bamako's numerous radio stations, may play hip-hop on air, but he's also accompanied to the office each day by his personal griot. In white robes and a red cap, the elderly griot punctuates Maiga's day with shrill cries reminding him of his ancestral past and obligations as a noble. It's an incongruous juxtaposition of the old and the new, the traditional praise singer popping up beside his bopping boss.

It isn't just a one-way relationship however. Amadou is, at times, clearly in awe of his praise singer, who will, he says, pull him up short if he behaves in a way that isn't becoming for his noble class.

Griots are thought to have strong magical powers and their skills are passed down from one generation to another. Their education and training involves a lengthy apprenticeship under the direction of a teacher, usually a father or an uncle. Amadou Maiga's griot is the son of Amadou's father's griot. The two families' histories are intertwined and inter-dependent, back 1 to the mighty Emperor Askia Mohammed.

Some griots have found fame exceeding that of their patron's. Today, music is one of West Africa's best known exports with many griots, like Salif Keita, Kandia Koyate and Ali Farke Toure becoming big international stars. Their music has been popularised and commercialised, and sometimes they can earn much more than their traditional noble patrons.

In a fairly ordinary-looking unmade street in Bamako, an old white horse stands tethered beside a rather newer looking Mercedes in front of some iron gates. It's the only sign that someone special lives here - one of Mali's best loved and most revered griot singers, Amy Koita top right.

Amy Koita herself is illiterate, but speaking in Bambara through an interpreter she told me that traditionally it was not unusual for women to be griot singers or jelimuso.

Mali: Young emerging musician explains the importance of his griot heritage

"It started with our ancestors. Men would recount history, and the women would sing. My mother and my grandmother still sing."

The songs are no ordinary songs. "When I sing, people expect my songs to have profound meanings," Amy Koita says. "In the olden days it was like the king having his advisers or counsellors around him. That was the role of the griot."

Despite her enormous popular appeal, Amy Koita still sings the same things that her mother and grandmother sang about. "My grandmother sang songs about human nature and gave lessons about what to do and what not to do. My songs use the same themes, but I've also used violin and other western instruments, so the style has changed. They may be played in nightclubs, but still use the same themes as the songs of my mother and grandmother."

The song that helped launch Amy Koita's international career was called Love. I asked her whether it's possible for Malian women to talk about love in a situation where marriages are still largely arranged. "Yes, on the contrary. Love can be talked about because, even where there are arranged marriages, it can make people think about forced marriages, and can trigger lessons. I think things have evolved. In the past there were forced marriages, today this is less so. When we sing songs like Love it sends out messages to the villages and questions some of those traditions."

But what is the role of the griot in modern Africa? Is it still to document the past, or are they a harbinger of the future?

It isn't a griot's job to criticise, merely to be an upholder of tradition, says Amy Koita. "What I would say to young children is think about tomorrow and preserve your traditions. Our role is to educate people and those who come after will also challenge things that we have accepted. I sing about a lot of things in my songs, about selfishness, about the relationships between men and women and the need to get on, and I also sing about children because you are a child today but an adult tomorrow."

One of the most controversial issues in Mali today is that of female circumcision, and Amy says she would not shy away from addressing even this taboo subject in her songs. "I am against circumcision and I think its in the interests of society not to practice circumcision. The role of a griot is to tell the truth and I would sing against it, but not in a way that would shock people. You can say the truth, but without hurting people's feelings. There are ways of saying everything."

Amy Koita has received many presents from admirers, money, gifts and even children to bring up in her household. Such patronage is very liberating as it means she doesn't have to depend solely on recording contracts and the pressures of commercial sales. She says there is an important role for griots to play, even in modern Mali. "The traditional things we are talking about will not disappear. With the help of radios and other modern communications griots will survive."

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