The Roles of the Griot in Sundiata; The Power of the Living Word

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Emily Nott
Dr. Scales
RCAH 320

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)
Works Cited

Charry, Eric. Mande Music: Tradtional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Hale, Tomas A. Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. Print.

Sidibe, Fodé Moussa. Univers des Chants de Chasseurs du Mali. Gainsville, FL: EDIS, 2007.     Print.

Works Consulted

Counsel, Graeme. Mande Popular Music and Cultural Policies in West Africa: Griots and     Government Policy since Independence. Saarbrucken, Germany: Verland Dr. Muller,     2009. Print.

Diallo, Yaya, and Hall Mitchell. The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings. Rochester,     Vermont: Destiny Books, 1989. Print.

Eyre, Banning. In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali. Philidelphia, PA: Temple     University Press, 2000. Print.

Mariatu Kuyateh, Kekuta Suso, and Seni Jobateh. “Lambango.” Worlds Of Music: An     Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples, 2002. Audio.

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  

A few more links on Sundiata

Before I post my final paper (It’s coming, I swear!) here are few more links, particularly interesting was the further information provided on the Sosso Balafon. My research said that Soumaoro’s (sosso)  balafon was one of the first explicit mentions of the instrument in any written form: a good piece of evidence that the instrument originated in Mali.

Some of the Links did not work on my computer. I am hoping you have more luck. Please comment!

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 2:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Supplementary material: hearing and seeing Griots

Tomorrow, I will be posting my finished independent research paper.

I would like to use this post to post a few visual/audio examples.

This video is a wonderful introduction to the kora, revealing the layers which construct the complex, almost hypnotic nature of the final sound.

this particular example of the balafon shows similarities with the musical qualities of the traditionally played kora.

As cheesy as the illustrations and voice-over are, the first 50 seconds of this show the vocals and instrumentals to the actual epic itself.

Published in: on May 3, 2011 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Appropriation, Re-appropriation, and the Musical Fourth World: The Politics of “Borrowing.”

The phrase “artists do not create in a vaccum” was repeated endlessly in a design seminar I took last semester. The Professor ceaselessly stressed the importance of the context in which creativity is manifested. However, a fine line exists between creative inspiration and theft of cultural property. When a dominant segment of society takes and re-signifies creative property from a subordinate segment of society, appropriation, a type of creative or cultural theft which inherently involves an imbalanced power dynamic, has occurred. This is often made possible by far-reaching modern telecommunications technologies, providing worldwide access to obscure recordings and artists. What happens, then, when these same technologies allow a culture to re-appropriate these elements of culture, re-signify them, and effectively re-localize what has been made global by appropriation?

In A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery: Transnational Music Sampling and Enigma’s ‘Return to Innocence,’  Timothy Taylor explores this process of appropriation and re-appropriation through a scenario in which a sampled indigenous traditional reached the original artist’s ears and sparked a heated controversy. The sampled and re-mixed song’s sheer popularity exposed the original indigenous artist to its (mis)use. Taylor not only documents this original act of appropriation and the dialogues which followed it, but the re-appropriation of the original indigenous melody by the same local group from whence it came. This process took place between the Kuo Ying-nan (an Ami artist who recorded several tracks of traditional Vietnamese music, including “Elder’s Drinking Song,”) Enigma (the German group who appropriated and sampled the recording,) and The New Formosa Band (who eventually re-appropriated the same “Elder’s Drinking Song.”) The original Recording was little-known, done by an ethnomusicologist through the Maison des Cultures du Monde and the Chinese Folk Arts Foundation. However, when the group Enigma sampled the recording in the track “Return to Innocence,” it grew to such immense global popularity as to re-reach the Kuos, resulting in a widely publicized lawsuit (Taylor 60). One of the most fascinating aspects of the resulting dialogues recounted in Taylor’s Article was the responses to the lawsuit by the fiercely loyal Enigma fans. One fan refers specifically to the original track as lacking finished qualities of “dance beats and other vocals,” (Taylor 72) and this view of indigenous culture as resources to be mined, refined, and presented as “finished” is important in the ideological justification of appropriation.

Taylor states that the logic behind appropriation often involves the business jargon of “globalization,” and that this word is often used to mask old patterns of exploitation, of this very idea of “mining resources.” However, just as “globalization” serves as a context for appropriation, “Glocalization” serves as a context for re-appropriation (Taylor, 78) In the case of Enigma and “Return to Innocence,” this re-appropriation came in the form of The New Formosa Band’s album Circle of Life. This album was created, unlike “Return to Innocence,” with collaboration and permission from the Kuo’s (Taylor). The album’s jacket situated Kuo as a “World Musician,” surrounded by green and connected to nature. It incorporated modern (almost Enigma-like) beats and instruments (which could, arguably, be a from of subtle reverse appropriation) and even the title suggests the cyclical nature of re-appropriation in a world where both global- and glocalization occur.
The series of events described by Taylor, however, is no clean circle: it is no where near that balanced. While re-appropriation and reverse appropriation may expand the means available to indigenous communities to reclaim or revise their own culture, the dominant culture will continue to mine the resources, musical, artistic, and cultural, of indigenous peoples all over the world. Hopefully, reverse appropriation and re-appropriation may create common elements among different musics of the Fourth world, and these similarities may lead to dialogues between communities previously separated by absolute difference. Hopefully, these dialogues may lead to the strengthening of legal protections of collective and individual indigenous cultural property. However, these hopes are countered by fears that the cycles created by re- and reverse appropriation may obscure or threaten the preservation of cultural traditions, and by the realities of situations similar to the events described by Taylor. While it is true, “No one creates in a vacuum,” created material, particularly indigenous cultural property, can be carelessly re-signified or mined as “raw material” in such situations; this is at the heart of the particular power imbalance inherent in the process of musical appropriation from indigenous culture.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jingle Dress Dreams

We were discussing the Origin of the Jingle Dress in class today, in the context of copyright. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and found the following:


“In both the Mille Lacs Indians and Whitefish Bay Ojibwe versions, the dress and the dance appeared in a recurring vivid dream that was realized about the year 1900. In both versions, the dream came to a Midewinini. In both dreams, there were four women, each wearing a jingle dress and dancing. Each dream also gave instructions on how to make the dresses, what types of songs went with them and how the dance was to be performed. In the Mille Lacs’ version, the Midewinini upon awakening, with his wife made four dresses. He showed his wife how to dance in the dress, which he showed to the four women he had dreamed about, by calling the four women who in his dream wore them, dressed them in the dresses, brought them forth at a dance, told the people about the dream, and how the way the Midewikweg were to dress and dance.”


I couldn’t believe that the origin of the dance was a dream! After I had had such a vivid dream about being a Jingle-dress dancer and concluded my entry on the Pow-wow of love by discussing it! It felt really wonderful to find a connection between myself and the dance.

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Singing Along a Delicate Line: XIT and Yothu Yindi’s Navigation of Contradition

Native American and Australian protest music are as united by underlying concepts and paradoxes as they are divided by cultural, social and historical intricacies unique to national (and even tribal) backgrounds. Neither genre of political song, like any art form, was created in a vacuum, and where there are parallels between the social, cultural, and political climates in which they formed, certain fundamental differences separate the musics and the outcomes of each continent. Social unrest was present in the historical background during the formation and creative heyday of both the popular Australian band Yothu Yindi and the Native American Red Power music group, XIT. Political and social context also played a major role in the positive reception of Yothu Yindi in the Western World. These varied historical contexts, coupled with the   significant tension between the traditional and the contemporary inherent in modern indigenous music, creates musical indexing in both Australian and American indigenous protest musics. This tension also creates a struggle for both authenticity and inter-tribalism, saddling both groups with the obligation to truthfully represent a supratribal pan-Indian identity (or a pan-aboriginality) which could be argued to be an impossibility. Despite significant historical and cultural differences, both forms of protest music are valid mediums in which to negotiate the complex process of ethnogenesis, explore the tension between contemporaneity and tradition, and (albeit with certain cultural and hegemonic barriers) air grievances and express desire for sovereignty, respect, and political action.

It is important to first acknowledge the historical context of each form of protest music to fully understand its creation, motivation, and effects. Red Power music arose from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a time of tumult and a mass-surfacing of civil rights activists from many previously silenced minority groups. Amid the violent images returning home from Vietnam, the fear associated with drafting, and the frustration of a highly controversial and unpopular war which sent a total of 61,000 American Indians into battle, XIT sang “Oh, I want peace with my soul again.” Amid the voices of the Black Power movement, LaRaza, New feminism and the New left, XIT sang “Your America has not been a land of your proclaimed equality, and justice for all / May your God forgive you.” Amid the sharp contrast between reservation and city, between the urban Indians, youth motivated by the supratribal Red Power movement and the concerns of reservation Indians, tribally focused and concerned with immediate land claims, XIT  sang “As a young Indian boy / I was raised / the true Indian way.  Free as the wind / on wings of white clouds / those were happy days.”

Historical Context was equally important in Aboriginal Music. Facing a similar contradictory urbanization, Archie Roach’s face appears on the cover of the album Charcoal Lane in a medium which “could be on one of those inner city posters coming away in the rain, but reveals itself as more likely inscribed on a stylized ghost-gum (tree) trunk” (Castles 20). Responding to a history of forced governmental assimilation programs, Roach sang “Back to their people/Back to their land/All the children came back/Yes I came back.” Yothu Yindi is also contextualized by the resurgence of racism and Anglo-Australian Hegemony in the 1996 election of a Conservative national government, creating a climate often cold, dismissive, and openly hostile to their protest songs and messages.

An important difference to note is the two-decade gap between the popularity of XIT and that of Yothu Yindi, the early seventies and the nineties respectively. Another important difference is that in Australia, indigenous people are considered black people, and identify heavily with African Americans, whereas during the Red Power movement, American Indians and African Americans are considered distinctly different, each with separate goals during the civil rights era. However, both American Indians and Indigenous Australians could be argued to share several important socio-cultural themes prevalent in their otherwise unique history: assimilation by European colonizers (as well as, arguably, multiculturalism as a thinly veiled descendant of that assimilation), demand that sovereignty and respect be given to indigenous groups and that government promises be honored, and a reclamation of traditional languages, instruments, and values amidst the chaos of a rapidly modernizing, urbanizing, and expanding world. These shared themes lead to another common trait within the tracks themselves, musical blending of traditional and modern, indexing of contemporary popular sound and indigenous language and instruments. In the case of XIT, “Plight of the Redman displays the kind of stylistic blending and creative indexing that is now a common occurrence in much contemporary Native popular music, with uniquely ‘American Indian’ musical elements embedded within a rock writing and production style very typical of the time period” (Scales 15). Yothu Yindi also blends musical styles of aboriginal and rock, however Hayward claims that particularly in the (arguably watered-down, anglo-palatable) remix Treaty II, all political meaning (and therefore, all relevance and impact) are washed away by a danceable modern beat and the removal of English Lyrics.

While American Indian and Aboriginal Australian protest music have important historical and cultural differences, they each navigate the complex themes, histories and events which contextualize them. Similarly, they each make revealing choices concerning contemporaneity and tradition, riding the fence between the old and the new, rural and urban, the oppressor and the rising voices of those who refuse oppression. They seek, in ways sometimes limited by political climate or the restrictions of the terms of success in the popular music industry, both authenticity (a contradiction in itself!) and relevance, using “musical means to extramusical ends” (Hayward-Neuenfeldt 176) be they a means to a political end, or a means to explore a world of delicate contradictions.

Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 9:32 am  Leave a Comment  

The Pow-wow: Cultural Inclusion, Personal Experience

**Please note: Since paragraphs don’t show up on a blog, I have used bullet points in their stead.

ALSO, please see the post below for sketches and video from the pow-wow

Emily Nott
Prof. Chris Scales
RCAH 320
Feb. 14, 2011

  • “There are three male and three female categories of dance,” I found myself saying, “each is recognizable by differences in movement and regalia.” I was explaining what little I knew about Indigenous music and dance traditions to a friend who had accompanied me to MSU’s  Pow-wow of Love. In reality, although I could categorize certain dancers by their dress and although I knew that the first event would be the Grand Entry, I had no real knowledge of what a Pow-wow was: what to expect, what I would experience, and how I would react. In truth, I think there is something lost in translation when reading about Pow-wows. Although articles introduced me to basic ideas, such as styles of dance and song, and to important concepts, such as the processes behind and tensions underlying the American pow-wow, nothing could have prepared me for the experience itself. There is a staggering difference between analyzing a recorded drumbeat and watching beads and feather bustles move hypnotically, seamlessly connected to the bodies of shifting, twirling dancers while the drum sends vibrations through your whole body. There is a difference between marking the pattern of a Pow-wow song and watching the muscles in a man’s face moves as he sings one, hearing the singers’ voices rise and fall and fill the room. There is no question that pow-wows are a powerful cultural experience, a fascinating expression of indigenous art and identity.
  • However, behind a community-based cultural event of this nature, there are important questions about who comprises the community itself and how the beliefs and ideals of the individuals involved manifest themselves in the event. At the powwow of love, a welcoming attitude broke tribal and generational lines. However, complex cultural forces prevented the line between native and non-native participants from dissolving altogether. At the pow-wow of love, I was able to observe non-natives as well as natives from many tribes dancing and participating together and natives and non-natives alike observing and honoring cultural traditions, some familiar and some unfamiliar. However, as a non-native spectator, I still felt like just that: a spectator, sitting outside, distinctly “other.” Out of fear or respect, I could not say which, I felt indescribably barred from full participation. Nonetheless, the medium of the pow-wow, both as a form of music and dance and as a community event, is well-structured to generate open-minded cultural understanding, learning, and participation across many tribal, cultural, generational, and social lines. I will attempt to examine the nature of the successful, thriving cultural community event I observed, and then the source of the “otherness.”
  • A common phrase over the PA system was “intertribal dance.” The emcee, straining to be heard over the buzzing crowd and jingling regalia of the dancers, was even heard more than once to encourage people to come down and dance, to leave the stands and head for the dance floor. The emcee, right away, displayed his role as a cultural interpreter. From the beginning, he played “a central role in informing participants and observers of the significance of the events and practices as they unfold, and in (selectively) enforcing tribal and Indian customs” (Mattern, 186). He informed spectators when to stand as a sign of respect, when it was acceptable for anyone to dance, and which categories were dancing when. He also told spectators that the schedule would be “tentative.” He explained this to mean “maybe we’ll do it, maybe we won’t.” To me, it seemed a simple, concise and straightforward way of explaining “Indian time” to someone like me, who doesn’t grasp that idea. The emcee isn’t the only tool allowing the pow-wow to function as an inclusive community event. The structure of the event itself contributes to the unity of the experience: namely, in the repetition of the circle as a symbol. The circle, which was a symbol in both structure and depiction at the Pow-wow of Love, “carries spiritual significance as a embodiment of all living creatures, and relations within this circle are characterized by unity, harmony, and inclusiveness” (Mattern 185). Not only was each drum surrounded by a circle of singers, but the entire spectator’s section and dance arena were also set up in a circle. Also, the symbol of the four directions mentioned repeatedly in the opening ceremonies had a strong connection to circles. On almost every dancer’s regalia was some sort of medicine wheel or circular symbol. Circles were a motif in the dances themselves as well. During the honor beats in every song, dancers with fans or staffs would wave them around in a circle above them, to honor the four directions the drum was speaking to. The drum itself could be thought of as a circle, both literally and in the rhythmic pattern it creates. The drum seems to move the singer’s voices up and down and to propel the dancers in the larger circle around the arena, and, particularly in the male traditional and certain styles of grass dancing, in smaller circles on an individual basis. It seemed to me that the minute the pow-wow really began was the moment the first drum struck up: the whole atmosphere changed completely as talkative spectators perked up and quieted down. There is something easy to understand in the rhythm of a drum, across tribal and cultural lines it makes sense, and in the context of the pow-wow it “symbolizes the heart of all living creatures and of indigenous people” (Mattern 187). Discussing the unison drumming of southern style singers, who were represented by a drum group at the Pow-wow, Mike Esquash said “you stand close to them you can kind of feel that heart…that beat on your chest and stuff, and the power. I like that power, that blast” (Scales, 16).  The vocal and physical movement the drum drives seems to echo this same effortless unity, through the repetition found in pow-wow songs and the unity across dance styles. Perhaps one of the most subtle forms of unity could be found in the dancer’s interpretations of their various respective styles. Despite the freedom to exercise individuality, a freedom of expression uncommon in many other forms of dance, there were certain unifying movements that drew lines between dancers and groups of dancers, giving the impression of a large, organized body as well as allowing observers to recognize individual variation. Unlike the Aztec dancers (whose very presence spoke to the Pow-wows inclusiveness,) most dance groups shared this delicate balance between individuality and uniformity. Through dance, drum, structure, and a very particular cultural interpretation, the Powwow of Love was an excellent example of what makes powwows such strong community events.
  • However, when the emcee called for intertribal participants, I remained firmly glued to my seat. Even as he encouraged natives and non-natives alike to leave the stands and hit the floor, I stayed rooted. I think the explanation can be best explored working from a statement made by Mattern, that “powwow practices contribute to social cohesion and the survival of Indians as Indians. Participants leave a powwow with a reinforced sense of what it means to be a tribal Indian and an American Indian” (191). This quote, when paired with the idea of survival as a triumph, a totally unfamiliar idea to a member of a dominant group, makes for an interesting comparison. On the rebirth of the cultural pride of indigenous peoples globally, George Manuel and Michael Posluns asked: “Does it matter how many battles others say you have lost if on the day of reckoning, you have survived?” (11) I think the reason that I could not truly experience a powwow as it was meant to be experienced had nothing to do with the organization or execution of the event itself, but with my status as a non-native. That survival is not my own, and therefore not mine to celebrate. The identity it reenforces is not my own, and while I can learn and enjoy and sketch and sway in my seat, the powwow is not mine “to be danced and felt” (Scales 11) However, these restrictions are much more personal than absolute. For example, the dance following the Grand Entry to honor Veterans included natives and non-natives, and veterans stepped forward to receive the honor as all the dancers stood around them in a circle, as once again the circle served to represent oneness and inclusiveness.
  • Despite certain barriers between cultures and tribes, the powwow is a forum in which inclusiveness and unity are strongly encouraged. Various elements of its composition, including cultural interpretation and basic structure, are forces which encourage and reinforce this unity. On a personal level, certain barriers may prove to much to be overstepped. For example, a tribe’s elder may be horrified at the liberal taking of pictures as disrespectful to the ceremonies taking place. Or a spectator may know that his or her place can only be that of an observer. Additionally, there are tensions between modern and traditional and between secular and spiritual that can be observed in powwows as a whole. However, despite these tensions and despite the reality of certain cultural and social barriers, the powwow provides a unique experience regardless of race, community or tribe.

The other night I had a dream that I was a jingle-dress dancer. I could feel the weight of my garment and I could feel the heartbeat from the drums around me. I twirled, hand on hip, as I had seen the jingle dress dancers do at the Powwow of Love. For a moment, I was there. This dream, oddly enough, seemed to reaffirm the strength of the Powwow as a cultural experience: one powerful enough to be not only fascinated by but immersed in. I can only imagine that the added layer of cultural meaning the event holds for native participants must make it much, much stronger. An already powerful event becomes a celebration of survival and identity: that “beat on your chest…that power, that blast” is one too strong for many cultural and tribal lines that hold firm elsewhere.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pow-wow of Love Media

Check out the Video and sketches! You can find them on TUMBLR:


Because I can’t figure WordPress’ video and pictures out.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 4:16 am  Leave a Comment  

What is the Fourth World?

The Fourth World: Parallels and Paradoxes

Definitions of the Fourth World seem as different and widespread as the people who compose the group itself: while Native American and Aboriginal Australian groups are traditionally associated with the term “indigenous,” this label in fact encompasses peoples from nearly every part of the globe. The common label, “Fourth World,” is quite surprising considering how distant and vastly diverse groups united by it are, unique communities with extensive dissimilarities in tradition, identity and location. However, the shared issues of identity, common historical ground, and struggle with the paradox of being heard create a category which is completely distinct; it is markedly separate from traditional definitions of the First and Third World. It fits somewhere in between them, lacking the concrete geopolitical and economic distinctions (and resulting political power and recognition) of the former two categories.
Despite the less tangible nature of the defining characteristics as compared to the First and Third World, the characteristics which define the Fourth world are legitimate factors which create a separate group within the two: these defining characteristics are completely unique to the fourth world. Some of the most important of these deal with the complex notion of identity. The process of Indigenity has been greatly influenced by a number of factors, mostly historical and dealing with the balance of power in both colonial and postcolonial society. For example, one could argue that indigenous classification hinges partly on the colonial encounter. Carneiro de Cuna states that this classification, “Like the labels tribal, native, aboriginal, and Indian, is an artifact of the colonial encounter.” However, Indigenous identity goes far beyond being defined solely by the purely political influence of colonial encounters. Certain Indigenous groups are set apart by language, culture, prior inhabitance of a certain area: as stated by Levi and Dean, “Sociohistorical as well as political variables are involved in the designation of indigenous peoples.”  Does this mean that indigenity and the Fourth world are completely synonymous? Not necessarily: the fourth world is tied deeply to indigenous identity, but involves other important factors.
For example, the emergence of a Fourth world also involves the exploration of a shared history and resulting struggle for the formation of a “new history” (Manuel and Posluns). This involves, firstly, a celebration of strength and of survival. Despite the destructive and forcibly, often violently or murderously, oppressive forces of colonialism, the people of the Fourth world share a common historical struggle of endurance, often living through veritable holocausts. Manuel and Posluns acknowledge that this involves more than looking back on history, but looking forward to its effects. The Fourth world involves a celebration of “survival: that we have not forgotten the words and deeds of our grandfathers and that today Indian people throughout North America are undergoing a rebirth, as self-conscious societies aware of our own unique role in the history of this continent.”
Once this self-awareness is reached, there is recognition of the crushing silence forced upon countless indigenous groups throughout time. The denial of certain basic human rights as well as access to cultural rights is also a shared concern of the Fourth world. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states the shared concern that indigenous peoples “have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests.” The process of shifting into a collective battle for expanded rights is also discussed in Niezen, because formerly “there was a lack of awareness among indigenous groups of the widespread, almost global nature of the crisis they faced.” This changed when the Indigenous movements of the 1960s and 1970s became not only more powerful but more communicative and interconnected.
The Fourth World also addresses the tension between indigenity and modernity. The paradox faced by the Fourth world is discussed in Levi and Dean. Indigenous people face a double-edged sword: “they must become activists to protect their rights, yet by becoming activists, they jeopardize their special status as indigenous.” The same tension takes countless forms. Take, for example, technology. By embracing technology, some would call into question the validity and “traditionalism” of an indigenous community. Yet, integrating technology into the traditional framework of ideas held by indigenous peoples is a key element of the Fourth World.
This is the fragility of the concept of the Fourth World: running parallel to the Third and First worlds without ever being allowed to exist beside them as an equal, rather existing isolated within the power structure of the First and Third worlds. Because of this precarious position, the Fourth world faces unique battles which define it. Perhaps, though, the greatest defining feature of the Fourth World is a battle fought for centuries by indigenous groups and still being fought every day: the battle for Survival, not only literally but politically, socially, and culturally.

Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm  Comments (2)  

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Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm  Comments (1)