Griots of West Africa


An introduction essay by Robert Palmer





Back in the early sixties, when French ethnomusicologist Tolia Nikiprowetzky introduced the first commercially-issued field recordings of West African Griot music on two Ocora-label LPs, he found it appropriate to begin his liner notes for Senegal: La musique des griots (Ocora OCR 15) with a question: "What is a griot? To tell the truth," he continued, "the exact significance of the term has not been well understood in the West, where the griot is often seen as a kind of African sorcerer. He is nothing of the sort; and if the complexity of the social role played by the griot lends itself to an examination carried out with scientific rigor, it is also possible to identify the griot simply as a minstrel." Then, almost as an afterthought, Nikiprowetzky adds, "The griots have left their mark on all of Islamic West Africa."

When Nikiprowetzky was writing, the Griot phenomenon was familiar to a mere handful of Americans, most of them highly specialized scholars. Today, students of blues and other African-American musical traditions are aware of the Griots of West Africa to some degree. Blues scholar Samuel Charters in particular has constructed a genealogy for the blues in which Griot music figures prominently. "The African musicians who correspond most closely to blues singers are the griots of the tribes of northwest Africa", he asserts, "from those areas where many thousands of people were taken as slaves." Charters has applied the tools of creative musicology, analysis of slave ship manifests and other historical sources, and an intimate, lifelong familiarity with both blues and West African music and musicians to his studies of African-American musical roots. His data and conclusions are summarized in his book Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues and in his notes to a recent CD anthology of original African and American field recordings, Blues Roots, issued by the Rhino label as Volume Ten in its series Blues Masters: The Essential Blues Collection.


The Griot as understood by blues scholars is essentially a musician who sings and plays traditional West African music, often on a banjo- or fiddle-like stringed instrument. But the number of blues aficionados who have heard about Griots from Charters and others is relatively small. Most Americans first heard the word "Griot" in connection with the book, the television mini-series, and eventual scandal swirling around author Alex Haley's Roots. In this international bestseller, presented as non-fiction, African-American author and former Malcom X biographer Haley described a journey to West Africa where, with the help of a group of oral historians or bards known as Griots, he was able to trace his family tree back to a particular village, and to hear from the local Griots there a detailed and heart-wrenching account of how his ancestors were tricked and sold into slavery.

Haley's astonishing adventure became an emotional watershed for many African-Americans, who hoped to heal some of the traumas of the past by reaching out to their ancestors, and by searching for their kinsmen, in present-day Africa. When Haley's account was revealed to be only partly true, and partly embellished, reactions tended to be highly emotional. Feeling compelled to reject a premise on which they had pinned such fervent hopes, Haley's early boosters now wanted nothing more to do with the man, his book-or the notion of tracing one's ancentry back to Africa through the oral histories of the Griots.

So, to return to Nikiprowetzky's conundrum, what is a Griot? I he primarily a musician and precursor of the African-American bluesman, or a historian of families, tribes and empires? Traditionally, Griots have often combined all these functions. But "whether they are seen as historians, genealogits, or musicians," writes Nikiprowetzky,


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, its designated chroniclers. As musicians, their presence was traditionally required at all celebrations and rituals. Although the griot caste ia among the lowest in the social hierarchy...griots are nevertheless much admired for their talent, and they can make a great deal of money. Among them, one find the most virtuosic of singers and instrumentalists. Their education and training, exclusively oral, necessitates a lenghty apprenticeship under the direction of a teacher-most often the father, or an uncle. It is necessary to study for many years in order to master the technique of an instrument or to learn all the songs and histories, and master the ensemble work indispensable to the activities of the professional. Some griots are more or less sedentary, and their renown is confined to the limits of their village or territory. (In this case, the griot will also work at another job: fisherman, farmer, etc.) Other griots are itinerants, and their reputation and income can vary considerably.

The Griot tradition is strongest in areas of West Africa that are primarily Islamic but include significant communities of both Christians and adherents of traditional tribal religions. Most of the musicians and singers heard on this album, with the obvious exception of Foday Musa Suso's American collaborators, are relatives of Suso's in an extended Griot family scatered across Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. Historically, there have been strong Griot traditions in Niger and Mali as well. In each locality, the Griots form a distinct, and often oppressed, social caste; in the past, in certain regions of Senegal, deceased Griots were not buried in the community's sanctioned cemetery plots but instead were left in the hollowedout interiors of baobab trees to slowly decompose. Yet when it comes to what Nikiprowetzky calls "the grand circumstances of life" -weddings, circumcision ceremonies, the awarding of community or governmental honors- the presence and particiaption of Griots is considered essential. And in general, Griot "untouchables" are well paid for their services -so much so that is Senegal, according to Nikiprowetzky, it was commonly held taht Griots' "exorbitant" fees were the reason "the ceremony of marriage has become, without a doubt, the most financially ruinous of all traditional ceremonies."


Many observers have seen in the ambivalence of African attitudes toward the Griots the seeds of America's ongoing love/hate relationship with the blues and its popular derivatives. The prim, the proper, the upwardly mobile and selfappointed guardians of public morals have traditionally shunned the travelling bluesman (and his descendent, the touring entertainer) along with all his works. But working men ad women have always been willing to cross a musician's palm with silver in order to hear a favorite song, and African-American culture has always has its pragmatists who insisited, in the words of a popular blues, "If I want to go to church on Sunday, then cabaret the whole day Monday/Well, it ain't nobody's business what I do." Meanwhile, blues musicians went right on chronicling the life they saw around them, adding piece by piece to a rich oral history not so far removed from the more elaborated chronicles preserved in West Africa by the Griots.

Beneath the social intriguing historical continuities we have been discussing often so deeply embedded or ingeniously camouflaged that it evades conscious notice, a deeper current runs, linking certain Griot music and certain blues along lines other than those of cause-and-effect. The comparative musicology and original historical sources that European-trained music scholars learn to revere as "hard data" may or may not be appropriate when applied to musical cultures with divergent value systems. Fela Sowande, a distinguished Nigerian musicologist once complained to a United Nations forum on world music that Western musicology is characterized by "an overconcentration on the formal and structural elements to the virtually total neglect of the symbological and psychological elements; the forcing of African culture patterns into Western European musical concepts, such as scale, pitch, etc.; and the use of partial material from one area of Africa to make broad generalization about what is then termed 'African music'....If we seek to discover the foundations of traditional music in Africa, I think we have to look for the traditional African's predilection for the esoteric and the occult, in religion and magic."


From this perspective, the figures of the traditional West African Griot and the traditional deep-South bluesman resonate harmoniously with one another. Bluesmen and blueswomen often sang of "hoodoo", of arcane supernatural visions at a rural crossroads, of good luck charms and love potions. They were preserving some of the lore of the African religions, and turning to the old traditions for guidance and for strength. They were often in direct and bitter competitions with the small-town and circuit-riding preachers, men who themselves were often one shaky conversion away from the bluesman's life. So the deacon and the sisters in Amen corner denounced them as the Devil's spawn-at least on Sunday. The rest of the week, as many bluesmen reminded their flocks, "nobody knows what the good deacon does."

In Nikiprowetsky's notes to his second LP of Griot recordings, Niger: La Musique des Griots (Ocora OCR 20), he alludes to an African circumstances highly reminiscent of the American blues-and-church dynamic. "In certain regions where animism persists", he notes carefully, "certain griots are specialized in the vocation of jinn and through their songs, they attempt to obtain the blessings of these supernatural beings". Jinn, an Arabic word, is the root of our "genie" and is often translated in Islamic cultures as "devil" or "demon" or as "elemental spirit". Just as bluesmen preserved elements of an early religion, and were demonized by apologists for the dominant religion, their predecessors and present-day relatives among the Griots of West Africa have been attacked as "sorcerers" and "pagans". But when a ruler, a merchant, or just and ordinary individual wants to research the history of his people and his culture, he turns to the Griots. And bluesmen, like it or not, have been among the first and foremost African-American historians, whether it was Delta legend Charly Patton chronicling the 1927 Mississippi flood in an extended narrative, talking up two sides of a 78-rpm disc, or Sleepy John Estes etching portraits of Brownsville, Tennesses's lawyers, doctors, policemen, lawbreakers and others citizens in his dozens of blues recordings.


As for sorcery, one only has to recall the tale told by early bluesmen like Tommy and Robert Johnson -deals made with demonic apparitions at midnight crossroads, the baying of hellhounds back down the trail. But blues musicians usually won't talk a bout this aspect of their lives very freely, and traditionally, neither do Griots. When Foday Musa Suso was asked to comment, for this collection, on the associations of Griots with the old religions, magic and the supernatural, he reportedly declined to say anything, explaining, "Whatever I told you about it, you would never believe it."

And so, perhaps a bit unnerved by the silence, the listener inculcated in European musical values returns to the more orderly realm of comparative musicology. From this he learns that instruments similar to the guitar, banjo and fiddle, which figured prominently in early African-American music-making, have long been traditional among West African Griots. The melodies sung by Griots, though they often have been influenced by the Islamic call to prayer, often resemble blues melodies-modal or scale structures are pentatonic, with areas of pitch-play, especially flattening, around specific intervals-the third, sometimes the fifth or seventh. These variously flattened notes corresponds to the so-called "blues notes" and the pentatonic scale corresponds to one frequently encountered in blues. (This "blues scale" actually operates more like a highly developed modal system, as found in Arab and some West African music, in that "directions" for flattening certain pitches-and often at least the suggestion of a melodic kernel or motive- are effectively part of the fixed musical material for any given performance).


Whether you personally find this kind of "hard data" or the intriguing imponderables of spiritual kinship more impressive, you may at first find the music on this CD both singularly exotic and curiously familiar. The soaring voices, the intricate fingerpicking on the kora harplute and the dazzling interplay of the marimba-like balafons- these are sounds that will leave only the stoniest of hearts unmoved, with rhythms that are crisp and bright and delicately interlaced.

As Foday Musa Suso journeys further into the African countryside, searching out his family, his past and the inspirations for his future, the music reveals more sides of itself, more glimpses of its exemplary craftsmanship and exquisite beauty. But Suso has lived in America some 18 years; much as some listeners might want to see him simply as the representative of a romanticized past, Suso in living in the present, a true citizen of the world. The evident ease with which Philip Glass and Pharoah Sanders rise in to the challenges of this collection's two none-traditional duets speaks highly of their creative sensitivity, and of Suso's ability as a composer to fashion a kind of musical meeting plays for cultures, a common ground. And perhaps it suggests something more: the music of the Griots, torn from the African heartland and cast on American soil, has now traveled full circle and, with the help of the blues, reached the point at which a musical and cultural reintegration of profound global consequence can occur. If Suso's African rhythmic sensibility is now a universally comprehensible language, as the organic unity of these collaborations suggests, then perhaps we're closed than we thought to a truly worldwide language of pop, with African rhythms as foundation. As Mississippi bluesman Bukka White once prophesied, "World boogie is coming!" This Griots journey, ostensibly the documentation of a past, may one day be better understood as a harbinger of a future.

-Robert Palmer