are 2 kinds of Gambian Griots in West Africa: One that sings and another that
plays the Kora (Cora) musical instrument.
The first reference to the Kora was made by
Mungo Park in his 1799
book describing his trips in West Africa. It can be described as an
African harp held vertically between one's legs when played.
This is the musical instrument
that has a range of over three octaves, the enchanting music of the
Kora is multi-layered and melodic. It accompanies the Jalis (Griots
pronounced gree-oh) who are praise singers of the
(Mande / Malinke) have a tradition going back hundreds of years.
A master griot often has no need for verbal accompaniment and uses a
technique known as birimintingo to "talk to the Kora."
In the past,
the role of the professional musician was reserved for those born into
the griot caste.
It is sometimes part of an ensemble which includes the
Balafon (a type of wood xylophone). Their unique role as praise
singers is passed, after a long
apprenticeship, usually from father to son though it can be passed from
an uncle. It requires many years of musical and historic training for
a student to become a master Kora player and to be able to recite the
religious, ethnic and family lineages.
The Bolonbata (also known a the
kontingo by the
Mandinka and as the halam or
xalam by the Wolof) is a variation of the Kora with at most
5 strings and has a bent neck made of Keno wood and a small gourd body resonator
that is encased in leather. This instrument is
played just by the Fulanis and Mandingo people in Gambia.
Griots have long been respected for the power of their music can
carry. Although the role of the griot has diminished with the
evolution of contemporary society and the passage of time, the griot
still remains an integral part of the culture of Gambia and the
strongest link to centuries of history.
For centuries, court musicians and ‘griots’ (story-tellers) have kept alive
tales of family and village history, and you may find them singing
their oral accounts and stories accompanied by a ‘Kora’. This tradition gives the
Mandinka people their strong sense of ethnic identity and history.
Griots have long been respected for the power of their music can
Although the role of the griot has diminished
with the evolution of contemporary society and the passage of time,
the griot still remains an integral part of the culture of The Gambia and the
strongest link to centuries of history. They sometimes belong to
the household of a nobleman, appointed to sing the virtues of their
benefactor and master. However, most are independent, singing the
praises of anyone who can pay them and a less generous clientele might
find the song more critical than giving praise. Because of their deep
knowledge of history they are often viewed with a mixture of fear and
admiration. But the griots of Gambia continue to maintain the
traditions of their people for the generations to come.
In the l9th
century the religious Soninke-Marabout
Wars and colonial influence caused the break-up
of ruling noble families. The Europeans appointed chiefs who often had
no connection to the traditional ruling houses. Thus, with prestige
and power usurped by the new chiefs and their resources drained by a
French-imposed tax system, the traditional noble patrons could no
longer care for their griots. Many griots were forced to adopt several
patrons, and others became itinerant freelance musicians. The griots'
new role became more that of an entertainer and musician and less that
of a genealogist and historian.
The role of the griot
is more than just a story-teller. He or she is a genealogists, singer,
deliverer of social or diplomatic messages, war rouser, general joke
telling and buffoonery
and is highly prized at tribal celebrations. The belong in one of the
lower castes however, their musically talented role which accompanies
the oral tradition is well respected and as a result many make a very
good living from their social role. They still exist today, although
the role of the musician is no longer held by the griots exclusively.
The Gambian griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval
European minstrel. This living archive of speech and song maintains
oral traditions, both local and epic. They are taught by their elders
and are trained over many years to learn the enormous quantity of
traditional songs and to master the melodies and rhythms. He might be required to sing seven generations worth of a tribe's
or family's history and, in some areas, to be completely familiar with
the songs of ritual necessary to summon spirits and gain the sympathy
Because of the low caste of the griot in some sections of West Africa,
they have been denied an earth burial and their remains were placed in
instead for fear that they would make the ground impure and shorn or
fertility. Today, such discrimination is illegal.
Famous Gambian Griots:
names include: Foday Musa Suso, Bai
Konte, Papa Susso, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh and Doudou M’Boob. The most
legendary being Balafasé Kouyate who was the personal griot of great
Mandinka leader Sundiata Keita (also spelt Keyita).
Griots and Modern Music:
the most important traditional function of griots seen from the
perspective of modern Gambia is their role as performing artists. In
most cases, griots were the sole musicians and storytellers. Among the
exceptions to this rule are noble Fulbe shepherd musicians, who play
the riiti (one-string violin) and the flute, as well as noble Fulbe
and Bamana hunters in Mali, who play the hunter ngoni, a five- to six-
string harp-like instrument, and sing. Fulbe society, which is nomadic
and ranges much further than any of the other societies in Gambia,
seems to have borrowed the caste structure and possibly even the ñeeño
people themselves from other Gambian groups and can therefore be
expected not to have exactly the same musical taboos.
Still, although certain groups of non-griots traditionally practice
music, it is only recently that they have begun to move, against
vehement social resistance, into the professional
music scene. Despite
certain noble non-professional musical traditions, griots were for a
long time the only professional instrumentalists, singers, or dancers
in most of Gambia, Mali, and neighbouring areas. In Mande societies,
nobles could perform musically in extremely limited and usually ritual
contexts, while in Wolof society noble men could apparently not
perform any music at all and women could sing in only a few
circumstances. Noble men believed that music was a feminine element
that would drain their powers to work the land or fight. Griots were
banned from both farming and fighting.