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The Roles of the Griot in Sundiata;
The Power of the Living Word
The epic which narrates the life and rise to power of the great Malian king, Sundiata Kieta, can only be found through the voice of a griot. For this study of the epic, I worked from a translation by the historian D.T. Niane from the version recounted to him by Djeli (griot) 1 Mamoudou Kouyaté. Even in this written account of the great saga, the griot (Koyaté) speaks of the weakness of the written word and the death of oral tradition, saying “Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past anymore, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice” (Niane 41) Indeed, a study of the written account is lacking without the steady rhythm provided by the combined hum of the griot’s voice and instrument. Koyaté continues his attack on the written word by summarizing an ultimate truth about the role of the griot: “With [written histories], everybody thinks he knows, whereas learning should be a secret…What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books!”
Throughout the translation, Koyaté repeatedly re-enters the tale with similar pieces of wisdom, references to the importance of the griot, and messages about the events in the epic. This gives the reader (or listener) a constant reminder of the nature of the story being recounted: that it is, first and most importantly, an oral history preserved for generations by the griots. To Koyaté, and in the philosophy of the jalolu like him, history is both “secret” and sacred. This philosophy is made evident by his interjections into the epic, highlighting the importance of reverence for history. However, his is not the only griot’s voice in the Sundiata epic. Gnankouman Doua, the griot who served Sundiata’s father, and Doua’s son, Balla Fasséké, are second in prominence as characters only to the kings themselves. In this paper, I will attempt to examine not only the comments of Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, but the actions and words of the griots in the epic itself. Throughout the epic, the multifaceted roles of the griot are revealed and explored; the griot’s roles as genealogist, storyteller (or historian), political figure, master musician and composer, teacher, exhorter (and praise-singer), and important ceremony participant are revealed to be both important individually and inseparable from one another. Each is integral to the place the griot holds in the epic, and, by extension, in the society of old Mali.
Understanding a griot’s function as genealogist is integral to understanding the griot’s approach to living history, as recounting genealogy dignifies and honors both an individual and their ancestors by connecting those past to a person in the present, and contextualizing an individual with the achievements of those who came before them. In Sundiata, Kouyaté first bestows this honor upon himself, as is common practice at the beginning of a griot’s performance enacted in order to establish qualification and credence before the listener. He declares, “It is I, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, son of Bintou Kouyaté and Djeli Kedia Kouyaté, master in the art of eloquence. Since time immemorial the Kouyatés have been in the service of the Keita princes of Mali; we are vessels of speech.” By identifying his ancestors not only as griots but as directly connected to the Kieta nobles as far back as Doua, the griot of Sundiata’s father, Kouyaté is providing his impressive credentials as a griot (Hale 20). He re-enters the epic to refresh the listener’s understanding of his jeli 2 lineage midway through the epic just before a gripping battle: “For generations we have passed on the history of kings from father to son. The narrative was passed on to me without alteration and I deliver it without alteration, for I received it free from all untruth” (Niane 40-41). In this re-entry, he not only reminds his audience of his ancestry, important in his training and apprenticeship,3 but directly references the importance of his lineage in the purity of his version of the epic. As well as Kouyaté’s self-referential genealogical credentials, the griot’s role as genealogist also surfaces within the epic itself. During a particularly potent scene in which Balla Fasséké (Sundiata’s griot) rallies Sundiata’s disheartened troops for an upcoming bloody battle, he addresses Sundiata directly: “But Listen to what your ancestors did, so that you will know what you have to do” (Niane 63). He then proceeds to list name after name followed by conquests and accomplishments of each ancestor. He ends his list with the parents of Sundiata, saying
You are the son of Naré Maghan, but you are also the son of your mother Sologon, the buffalo-woman, before whom powerless sorcerers shrank in fear. You have the strength and majesty of the Lion, you have the might of the buffalo (63).
Baba Fasséké pays special attention to the wraiths, or spirit-doubles of Sundiata’s father and mother and the strength that the lion and buffalo connote. His encouragements of the soon-to-be-king on the eve of the important battle take the form of praise of Sundiata’s ancestors, but end with what seems to be a challenge:
I have told you what future generations will learn about your ancestors, but what will we be able to relate to our sons so that your memory will stay alive…by what actions will our sons be brought to regret not having lived in the time of Sundiata? (63)
Kouyaté re-enters the narrative at this point to address the purpose of Fasséké’s challenge. Speaking of the battle the following day, he says: “It was on the eve of Krina. In this way Balla Fasséké reminded Sundiata of the history of Mali so that, in the morning, he would show himself worthy of his ancestors” (63). Fasséké’s combination of virtue and challenge speaks to the same virtue and challenge presented within all genealogies recounted by a griot. While confidence may be inspired by placing an individual within the context of a long line of successes, a challenge is made to achieve to a higher level of placement within that ancestry; a life can be made great by an individual’s actions or fade to the background amidst more important and notable names.
Apparent in both the comments of Kouyaté and the actions of Doua and Fasséké is the vital role of the griot as historian and storyteller: preserver of history and resurrector of heroes. Kouyaté begins his account of Sundiata by stating this succinctly and eloquently: “Listen to my word, you who want to know; by my mouth you will learn the history of Mali” (1). While Western cultural traditions would place the epic of Sundiata in the realm of myth or legend, it is considered historical fact by African audiences (Hale 23). It is given credibility by its inclusion of genealogy. Like many of the other roles the griot serves in society, there is no equivalent in Western culture for the griot’s particular alive and involved connection to history. Western historians may dismiss historical merit of oral epics such as Sundiata for not being written and recorded, and yet Kouyaté dismisses written history as “paltry learning” of “dumb books.” Each understanding of history has no room for the other, which highlights the living relationship griots have with history. They adapt their interpretations to their particular musical and oral style and to the times in which they live, and this dynamic relationship allows for a type of historical storytelling which seems far more flexible and less concrete, more alive and less stagnant than history in Western academics.
One of the most dominant roles which can be observed in the actions of the griots in the epic is that of political advisor. Both Doua and Fasséké act as spokespersons, mediators, interpreters, diplomats, and advisors throughout the epic. In the very beginning, when a hunter offers a sacrifice to Maghan Kon Fatta, Sundiata’s father, it is Gnankouman Doua who addresses him. He greets the hunter, and the king (expected by societal norms to be stoic and reserved) barely speaks throughout the proceeding events as Doua mediates the entire conversation (Niane 4-5). This first interaction sets a precedent for the political role of the griot throughout the entire epic, as the voice box of the silent, stately rulers. Before Sundiata reclaims the throne, his brother, Dankaran Touman, has usurped the throne with the help of his plotting mother, Sassouma Berété. 4 In a tricky maneuver for power, Touman essentially steals Baba Fasséké, the griot given to Sundiata by Maghan Kon Fatta from his deathbed. In a second offense, Touman sends Fasséké away on a diplomatic mission without consulting Sundiata. This exchange is infuriating enough to give the crippled young Sundiata the rage-motivated strength to stand, and then to uproot a baobab tree, which Fodé Moussa Sidibe refers to as a Malian “symbol of power, divinity, and masculinity” (27; my translation). This chain of events reveals the powerful nature of the griot as a political figure, here used as a political tool for insult and debasement strong enough to inspire Sundiata’s rise from the ground and into a powerful status.
The griot’s role of musician and composer is probably the aspect of griot artistry most known outside of West Africa. Griots have the unique and exclusive right to play the kora, a standing calabash harp, the koni, a four-stringed lute, and the bala or balafon, a wooden xylophone. Little is said in the epic about these instruments, although little at all was said about the bala prior to the explicit reference attributing the bala to Soumaoro, the blacksmith sorcerer king defeated by Sundiata (Charry 133-35). The most striking example of musical mastery in the Sundiata epic is Baba Fasséké’s near-death encounter with this same sorcerer-king, Soumaoro, in which his virtuosic abilities on the balafon5 and ability to compose spontaneously save his life. As Fasséké explores Soumaoro’s palace, he comes across a secret room containing the sorcerer’s fetishes 6 which include a large snake, two owls7 and the skins and heads of nine conquered kings (Niane 39). Among Soumaoro’s fetishes is a balafon “bigger than [Fasséké] had ever seen in Mali” (39). Despite the powerful bad omens surrounding him, he is drawn to it. In Kouyaté’s words, “The griot always has a weakness for music, for music is the griot’s soul” (39) Instinctually, almost involuntarily, Fasséké sits down to play:
He had never heard such a melodious balafon. Though scarcely touched by the hammer, the resonant wood gave out sounds of an infinite sweetness, notes clear and as pure as gold dust; under the skillful hand of Balla the instrument had found its master. He played with all his soul and the whole room was filled with wonderment. The drowsy owls, eyes half closed, began to move their heads as if with satisfaction. Everything seemed to come to life upon the strains of this magic music. (39)
Upon hearing his instrument played, Soumaoro rushes back to his bala, but Fasséké changes key and improvises a flattering praise-ballad lauding Soumaoro as feared and powerful. The sorcerer-king is so taken with the praise song that he not only spares Fasséké’s life but appoints him his griot, which later enables him to escape with valuable information to aid Sundiata. The above scene, along with being a powerful narrative image and an important part of the epic, is the most specific description of a griot’s musical mastery in the entire saga. The compelling image it presents (of music beautiful enough to throw powerful creatures into a stupor) is one of otherworldly and trance-inducing musicianship. Thomas A. Hale, in his encyclopedic book Griots and Griottes, describes jeli musicianship in a way that fits the sheer power of this (albeit legendary rather than historical) moment in Sundiata: “The music the griot produces is in some ways the external manifestation of a highly complex and synergistic process surrounded by mystery” (36). Another part of the process Hale describes is composing, done by both Doua and Fasséké at various key moments throughout the epic. For example, Doua’s song on the occasion of Sundiata’s birth (Niane 14), or Fasséké’s song accompanying Sundiata’s first steps (21). A very notable composition can be found near the end of the epic, after Sundiata conquers Soumaoro and is appointed emperor by the various kings of Mali and saluted as “Mansa,” Fasséké composes “the Great Hymn ‘Niama’ which the griots still sing:
Niama, Niama, Niama,
You, you serve as a shelter for all
All come to seek refuge under you
And as for you, Niama,
Nothing serves you for shelter,
God alone protects you” (75).
This song is one of the most famous composed by Fasséké for Sundiata (Hale 37) and serves to commemorate both Sundiata and the son of Sologon’s strength during the conquest of Sosso and liberation of Mali from the unjust rule of the sorcerer-king, Soumaoro. By writing the song, Fasséké creates a promise to counter the challenge he issued to Sundiata when recounting his ancestor’s achievements before battle. He is informing Sundiata of how he will be remembered, because, according to Thomas Hale, the tradition of griots demands: “once written, a song is not forgotten” (38). The power of this promise, one of a positive historical documentation and an honorable place in genealogies, is essential in understanding the influence griots had, and the long-lasting effect of the music they composed.
Part of the responsibility of a griot in Mande society was to train the princes to which they were assigned. For example, Balla Fasséké was not only Sundiata’s griot but his tutor. As well as teaching him genealogy and history, he also instructs him about expectations and norms. This is part of the reason that Maghan Kon Fatta’s decision to assign Fasséké (his own griot’s son) to Sundiata despite his physical disability was so important in determining Sundiata’s rise to power. The king calls Sundiata, still a child, to his deathbed and says:
I am going to give you the present each king gives his successor. In Mali, every prince has his own griot, Doua is mine and the son of Doua, Balla Fasséké here, will be your griot. Be inseparable friends from this day forward. From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us. (Niane 17)
The incredibly important responsibility of teaching the future king about justice and how to govern is not carried out by the king himself, but rather entrusted to the griot. This is an immense amount of power: to shape the future ruler of an empire. Fasséké obeys the wishes of the dying king, and “gave the child education and instruction according to Mandingo rules of conduct. Whether in town or at the hunt, he missed no opportunity of instructing his pupil” (21). The 1995 film Kieta: L’Héritage du Griot (Kieta: The Heritage of the Griot) uses the story of Sundiata to present a modern griot’s role as a teacher and his effect on the life of a young boy. The boy, like Sundiata, is of the Kieta clan and the griot, like Balla, is a Kouyaté. Dani Kouyaté, the film’s Burkinabè creator (like Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté who recounted D.T. Niane’s version of the epic) is also a Kouyaté and of griot heritage. In the film, the bond between griot and learner parallels the bond between Sundiata and Fasséké. However, the films modern setting presents conflicts between the boy’s school learning and time spent learning from the griot, whereas in Sundiata this teaching process is encouraged instead of dismissed by the community as archaic. The griot’s role as a teacher not only of princes, but of future generations of griots is integral to the survival of the profession.
A partially political role of the griot which is distinctly different from that of advisor and spokesperson is the griot’s responsibilities to a leader as exhorter and praise singer. At multiple points in the epic Sundiata, Doua and Fasséké quell the doubts and fears of both armies and their leaders before great battles and feats. As they prepare to do battle with Soumaoro’s army, Sundiata “arranged a great military review in the camp, so that Balla Fasséké, by his words, should strengthen the hearts of his sofas8…Balla Fasséké extolled the heroes of Mali” (Niane 58).
As Fasséké describes the feats of each leader assembled there for battle, the leader comes forward and enacts a feat of strength: “Balla Fasséké mentioned all the chiefs by name and they all performed great feats; then the army, confident in its leadership, left Sibi” (59). Following the successes at the battle of Sibi, Fasséké once again addresses the army before a second great battle as Sundiata’s army prepares to March on Krina to crush Soumaoro after a long pursuit. He again, “in front of the whole army, called to mind the history of Old Mali” (61). This time, however, his songs of praise are accompanied by a haunting question which challenges the army and its leaders to determine the history of Mali. It was the words of Balla Fasséké which drove the armies of Sundiata, confident and ready, into battle. Again, the griot is revealed to have enormous power within mande society which, as Thomas Hale states, can have a negative side particularly in the griot’s role as exhorter. The words, songs, and deeds of griots can drive men and even entire armies to their destruction (40). Again, the griots are proved to hold incredible amounts of power, enough to move men into battle and change the outcome of history. Throughout the epic, Fasséké encourages and praises the disheartened, hesitant, or disillusioned Sundiata. When Sundiata returns to his home village after the long and unjust rule of Soumaoro, he finds it in ruins:
A part of the ramparts had been destroyed and the charred walls still bore the marks of the fire. From the top of the hill, Djata looked on Niani, which looked like a dead city. He saw the plain of Sounkarani, he also saw the site of the young baobab tree. The survivors of the catastrophe were standing on the road. The children were waving branches, a few young women were singing, but the adults were mute (Niane 80).
In the face of this utter desolation, the heartbreaking sight of his home charred and broken and his people silent, Baba Fasséké steps in to comfort and encourage him. As he looks upon his decimated home, his griot says surprisingly, “Rejoice…for your part you will have the bliss of rebuilding Niane, the city of your fathers, but nevermore will anyone rebuild Sosso out of its ruins. Men will lose recollection of the very site of Soumaoro’s city” (80-81) As well as looking to the future instead of the hopelessness of the present, the griot supports and comforts Sundiata and reminds him of his momentous victory over Soumaoro and of Sundiata’s complete destruction of Soumaoro’s city, Sosso. One wonders at these pivotal moments in the story, whether to frightened troops before battle or to a disheartened king before a lifelong and difficult task in the face of hopelessness: would these events have occurred without the griot’s exhorting, wisdom, and encouragement? The griot is proved pivotal in the major events which take place as a catalyst to action.
The last role executed by the griots in Sundiata which cannot be omitted is that of ceremonial leader and participant. In Sundiata, Doua and Fasséké are both integral parts of ceremonies throughout the epic, either as participants or Masters of Ceremony. On the very day of the birth of Sundiata, Gnankouman Doua waits outside to greet the king and celebrate the birth of his son: “All the griots were there and had already composed a song in praise of the royal infant” (Niane 14). Then, eight days later at Sundiata’s naming ceremony, it is not Sologon or Maghan Kon Fatta who announce the name of the child, but Doua. After he does so, the griots chant it repeatedly even before it is whispered in the ear of the child, so that he would not forget it. (15) According to Thomas A. Hale, the naming ceremony can be tied closely to the genealogical and historical function of the griot as it is often a custom to repeat the great qualities and deeds of the ancestor whose name the child bears (49). In this case, the child (Sundiata) took his father’s name, Maghan. However, the genealogical praise function is not carried out in this example, because Kouyaté recounts Balla Fasséké’s explanation that “Mari Djata [is] a name which no mandingo prince has ever borne. Sologon’s son will be the first of this name” (Naine 14). As before, the griot’s statement serves as a challenge, to make great the name that belongs only to him, so that other princes will take that name. The speeches and songs of griots are an integral part of the births, namings, courtships, weddings, initiations, political installations, and funerals. At every important ritual in life, a griot is there to voice the emotion and communicate the meaning of the event which is being represented through ceremony. Later on, a griot’s description of participation in a ceremony is described in greater detail. After Sundiata defeats Soumaoro, all of the different armies9 assemble in a large clearing outside Ka-Ba and Balla Fasséké addresses the massive crowd, naming each tribe there represented to recognize and honor them. In what feels like a very honest moment (but may be a careful admission of humanity by a master wordsmith) Fasséké concludes this speech by saying: “May I be humbly forgiven if I have made any omission. I am nervous before so many people gathered together” (74). After his admission of humanity, Fasséké speaks eloquently and (for a griot, surprisingly succinctly) about the nature of the triumph Sundiata accomplished and the importance of the peace he restored. It is only then that the twelve kings, one by one, come forward and offer Sundiata their spears, thus naming him the Mansa10 of the kings of the bright country11 (74). Yet again, the reader wonders if, without the words of the griot, events would have unfolded as they did. As Thomas Hale posited, “It is hard to imagine the event going on without some involvement by these artisans of the word, because they bring people together with their speech” (49). Balla Fasséké does just this throughout the life of Sundiata: through song and ceremony, he surrounds the king with people and ensures that they share in the joy of his victories.
Throughout the epic of Sundiata, the roles of the griot are undeniably distinct, and, amazingly, genealogist, storyteller (or historian), political figure, master musician and composer, teacher, exhorter (and praise-singer), and important ceremony participant are only some of the roles a griot is responsible for. Others include warrior, witness, translator, and, less frequently and in certain locations, bonesetter, executioner, and diviner. To examine the griot as I originally intended: as only a musician or as solely a storyteller, is not only to deny the existence of these other integral roles, but also to deny the connected nature of these roles. Sundiata provides numerous examples of this interconnectivity. A web of information, of living history, supports the role of the griot as genealogist and historian and it is their very connection to (and impact upon) this web which supports their political power. Griots have the responsibility not only to preserve memory (through historical knowledge and the teaching of princes) but to create it, and it is the ability to shape the collective memory of future generations which makes the griot powerful. The examples in Sundiatia, of which the above are only partial, suggest that the words of the griot have the ability to shape future kings, drive men into battle, and write or rewrite history. The importance of one of these roles fortifies the importance of the other.
There is much to be studied about the griot: for example, the fascinating changes these roles have undergone through time and the completely different forms and implications they posses in the modern age. However, through this close reading of the Sundiata epic, once can get a sense of the roles of these wordsmiths and of the unique position they held in the society of Old Mali. It seems that it is the job of the griot in the old “Bright Country” to not only navigate the complex web of living history which they simultaneously study and create but to share this navigation with the leader they support.
In Sundiata’s most important moments, is is Balla Fasséké who stands beside him. It is Fasséké who leads him into the maze of Soumaoro’s palace, familiarized with the labyrinth of hallways and chambers by his long imprisonment there as the blacksmith sorcerer’s griot (Niane 69). The image of a king following his griot into the dark and uncertain chambers of the evil king’s palace is potent indeed. The king’s acceptance of another’s voice as his own (albeit with the necessity of constant monitoring and approval) as well as his willingness to follow another man, into battle, in political decisions, and into an uncertain future is viewed in the epic not as a sign of weakness on the king’s behalf, but rather as a sacred interaction between two leaders of different powers: one of speech and the other of action. Balla Fasséké summarizes this effectively and eloquently as he prepares Sundiata for the bloody battle at Sibi: “Oh son of Sologon, I am the word and you are the deed, now your destiny begins” ( Niane 58). It was the tradition of the griot through a complex series of interconnected roles which immortalized the story which resulted from that relationship.
Footnotes (Again, my apologies for format)
1 “Griot” is actually a Europeanized word for “jeli” (and for similar figures in other West African societies.) The plural for “jeli” is “jalolu,” although this particular terminology is specific to the Mandinka of Western Mande (Hale, 10).
2 On different spellings within this article: due to the difficulty of anglicizing African languages, I encountered several spellings of “jeli” and “Sundiata” (the latter including “son-jara” and “sunjata.”) I followed the spellings of my primary research sources, D.T. Niane’s Sundiata and Thomas A. Hale’s Griots and Griottes.
3 Griots are born into being a jeliI and protect this status by endogamy (Charry 91). Griots undergo an intense informal training comparable to the time and effort of earning a doctorate, which begins at birth and continues past age forty or fifty, when (in Mande society) they may become a ngara or master griot (Hale 173-189)
4 Mande Society is polygamous and because Maghan Kon Fatta was powerful, Sologon and Sassouma Berété were only two of many of his wives.
5 Usually constructed by wooden slats on a bamboo frame, its origin is attributes, like many mande instruments, to a jinn. (Charry 135)
6 Worldly symbols of otherworldly or supernatural power, can be statues, masks, etc. (Niane 92)
7 Considered bad signs in most of West Africa: carriers of spirits of the dead (Niane 89)
8 Sudanese infantrymen, usually warriors
9 Those mentioned specifically are tribes from Do, Ghana, Mema, Bobo, Sibi, (Wagadou, Fakoli, Tabon) and Ka-Ba, where the great gathering itself took place. Those in parenthesis are ommitted by Fasséké and later mentioned by the king of Sibi (Niane 74).
10 Emperor, or high king (74).
11 ‘Bright Country’ refers to the rust and gold soil, intense heat, and dryness of this area positioned just above the equator. Also to ‘brightness,’ a religious beleif that light connects the physical and spiritual worlds, and that in this country those two worlds are the closest (ix)
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