Humanities 211
Culture(s) & Literature of Africa
(Oral Arts &  Film)
Cora Agatucci

6 October 1998: Learning Resources

Mali Empire & Griot Traditions

Backgrounds for Keita:  The Heritage of the Griot  

Sundjata Keita, Old Mali, & Griot Tradition  

The Mali Empire, centered on the upper reaches of the Sénégal and Niger rivers, was the second and most extensive of the three great West African empires. The Mali Empire served as a model of statecraft for later kingdoms long after its decline in the 15th and 16th centuries.. Under Sundjata and his immediate successors, Mali expanded rapidly west to the Atlantic Ocean, south deep into the forest, east beyond the Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. The city of Niani may have been the capital. At its height, Mali was a confederation of 3 independent, freely allied states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces. The king reserved the right to dispense justice and to monopolize trade, particularly in gold.

From African Timelines Part II: African Empires, 1st – 15th centuries 

Text Box:  Mali: Africa's Empire of Empires

Africa has known many empires, but none is so well remembered as the Empire of Mali, sometimes called the Manding [Mande] Empire (see African Timelines: Part II). The Empire of Mali lasted from 1235 until about 1468. It was the second of three great dominions that united the vast interior of West Africa, a mostly inhospitable region of forests, mountains, savanna, and desert, and home to a rich diversity of peoples, including nomads, traders, farmers, fishermen, and cattle herders. Mali surpassed the earlier Empire of Ghana both in wealth and influence. For where Ghana had thrived by trading West African gold with the Arabs across the Sahara, Mali controlled both the trade and the mining of that gold. The region had never known such unity and prosperity. The Songhay [or Songhai] Empire that followed Mali was more despotic and warlike, and also more powerful.  But it disintegrated quickly at the end of the 16th century when the seafaring Portuguese opened up the Atlantic Ocean trade routes, undermining the overland commerce that had been the lifeblood of all three empires.

If the memory of ancient Mali still burns brightly today, that's largely thanks to the work of griots, professional historians, praise-singers and musical entertainers among the Manding people. Today, the Manding are spread throughout at least six West African countries: Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Cote D'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau. The Manding have never again known the political unity they enjoyed before 1468. But they have maintained a remarkably unified culture. They still rely on their griots to remind them of their glorious place in history. And the most cherished of all the griot histories is the story of Sundiata Keita, the first king of the Malian Empire.

From: [accessed July 1997]  

Griot Traditions

Sundjata Keita is the cultural hero and ancestor of the Mande (AKA: Mandinka or Manding or Malinke) peoples, founder of the great Mali Empire, inspiration of the great oral epic tradition of griots or professional bards--like Djeliba in the film Keita: The Heritage of the Griot--keepers of tradition and history, once trusted and powerful advisors of kings and clans. 

These oral artists are specialists of the spoken/sung word and the power—called nyama—that it releases.  They may belong to special castes (nyamakalaw - or handlers of nyama) or inherit their calling through generations of the same family, for example, in Mande West African cultures.

"The Mande see nyama as a hot, wild energy that is the animating force of nature.
Nyama is present in all the rocks, trees, people and animals that inhabit the Earth.
It is similar to the Western notion of the soul but is more complete than that.
It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. 
Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe. While nyama molds nature into its many forms,
the nyamakalaw can shape nyama into art. |
The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills
that are passed down from generation to generation.
The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic
and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards."
--From The World of the Mande: History, Art and Ritual in the Mande Culture,
and Caste Systems in Mande Society, Anthropology/Africana Studies 269 and
Anthropology/Africana Studies 267, Prof. Mandy Bastian
(Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA) 1997-1999

From African Timelines Part II: African Empires, 1st – 15th centuries

What is a Griot? (pronounced GREE-oh)

Griots are historians, praise-singers and musical entertainers. And yet, none of these descriptions quite captures their unique status in Manding [Mande] society.  In the time of Sundiata, griots tutored princes and gave council to kings. They were educated and wise, and they used their detailed knowledge of history to shed light on present-day dilemmas. A Griot is also an African historian. He is a revered clan member who would memorize all of a village's significant events, like births, death, marriages, hunts, seasons and wars, ensuring that the collective heritage, culture and lineage of the clan continued. A Griot would speak for hours, even days, drawing upon a practiced and memorized history, that had been passed on from Griot to Griot for generations.  Long after the fall of the Malian Empire in 1468, a Manding family of means would have their own griot to advise, arrange the terms of marriages and mediate disputes, always relying on their understanding of each family's history.

Somewhere along the line, griots, or jelis as they are known among the Manding, also became the official musicians of the society. The balafon, which figures prominently in the Sundiata story, is a wooden xylophone and probably the original jeli instrument. But now, jelis also play the ngoni, a small traditional lute, and the kora, a 21-string cross between a harp and a lute. Jelis also sing in loud, proud voices full of the grandeur of their history. There are male griot singers, but many of these beloved and respected vocalists are also women.  

The griot's ancient art, jeliya, is still practiced today, though some say it has declined under the pressures of modern, commercial society [a central theme of Keita: The Heritage of the Griot]. These days, Manding families generally cannot afford their own private griot, so the musicians move from family to family, performing at weddings and baptisms, entertaining and praising the guests.  Critics claim that this way of working forces griots to know a little bit of everybody's history, but prevents them from knowing all the rich detail that their ancestors had to master.

Perhaps jeliya has changed, but it remains enormously popular. Some of the most celebrated pop music stars of Mali, Guinea, Senegal and the Gambia are griots, who have transformed traditional compositions to create modern, electric music. In Mali, female griot singing stars include Ami Koita, Kandia Kouyaté, and Tata Bambo Kouyaté, all of whom have released many volumes of cassettes on the local market.  Guinea's Mory Kanté has built an international career on his driving, Paris-produced dance tracks, but the music remains firmly rooted in his griot past. Perhaps West Africa's most celebrated pop star around the world, Salif Keita of Mali, does not have griot ancestry. Indeed, as the name Keita indicates, he is a noble descendent of Sundiata Keita, the first king of the Malian Empire. But Salif nevertheless draws heavily from griot tradition in his music.

Courtesy of Banning Eyre/World Music Productions
From: [accessed July 1997]  

West African Cultures
& Griots' Musical Instruments

From THE CORA CONNECTION: "Your link to the rich Music Traditions of West Africa" (David Gilden & Banning Eyre, 1999):

West Africa: The Land and Its Peoples
"The Mandinka are especially famous for their jalis or griots, traditional historians, praise singers and master musicians. Among the instruments they play to accompany their epics and songs is the 21-string kora."  This webpage offers a
map and links to profiles of West African countries where the Kora is played:
Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal.

What is a Balaphone? 
"The kora, the ngoni and the balaphone are the three indispensable melody instruments of the Manding [Mande] griot. All three instruments are found throughout the Mande world, but each has its region of dominance. The kora rules in Gambia, . . . In Mali, the ngoni is king,  . . . [and Guinea] is the province of the balaphone." 
Akin to the xylophone, the West African balaphone is both a percussive and melodic instrument.  It belongs to the family of musical instruments called "ideophones," sharing a "set of tone bars laid across a frame and struck with mallets."

What is a Kora?  ["Cora" is an alternative French spelling of "Kora"]
This webpage offers a diagram of the Mandinka kora, which looks and sounds something like a harp, "but its intricate playing style can be closer to flamenco guitar."  The kora is made of "a calabash gourd cut in half and partially covered with cow skin"; and it traditionally has 21 playing strings, typically "fishing line which provides a brilliant tone and is easily obtained at the local market."  Internal links take you to information about "Tuning the Kora" and the opportunity to "Hear the Kora."  

"The Ngoni, a plucked lute from West Africa" 
"Ngoni is the Bambara [or Bamana] name for an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa. . . . The version played by the Manding griots of The Gambia, Mali and Guinea is typically about two-feet long and has either four or seven strings."

More HUM 211 Course Pack Web Resources on Keita:

Keita: Film Notes


Backgrounds for Keita:  The Heritage of the Griot
Epic of Sundjata | Mali Empire & Griot Tradition | African Oral Epics


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