HUM 211 Course Pack  - Winter 2010 Fall 2007
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SHORT CUTS on this web page: What is an Epic? | The Mali Empire | Epic Story of Sundjata
On Translating Orature into Literature | What is a Griot? | Excerpts from Sundjata Epic
Web Sources: West African Music & Cultures | A Spirit Song Honoring the Kora | Works Cited

What is an Epic?

Genre Definition:  “An epic is a long poem, told in dignified language, celebrating the actions of a hero.” 

As stated in another Hum 211 Course Pack reading, "Culture, Religion, and Myth," all cultures create stories and myths.  Sacred and secular stories--i.e. narratives--is a way to know and make sense of the world, and these narratives are powerful imaginative vehicles for interpreting the human condition. 

World epics tell heroic stories (narratives) full of marvels, usually part of a culture's "mythology" (a body of interconnected stories) that serve to help people understand their place in the world, who they are, where they come from, and where they are going.  In addition to the narrative (the story itself), oral epics are often filled with much didactic material, working with the narrative to teach lessons and ethical norms, and pass on the collective wisdom of cultures. 

Some people dismiss any belief system that is not their own to be “myth.”  But “myth” to one person can be “religion” another.  "Myths" may be based on verifiable fact—e.g. Western-style “evidence” does support the historical existence of a medieval Mali king named Sundjata.  However, documented verifiable evidence is not necessary for a cultural group to claim an epic narrative as its own, to believe in the power of the mythic story to convey a people’s history, values, beliefs; to preserve their cultural wisdom; and to transmit important spiritual and cultural truths.

M.H. Abrams defines two general types of epics, based on Western models:

(a) “Traditional epics” are written versions of what were originally oral poems or songs about cultural heroes developed in a warlike age: e.g. Iliad and Odyssey of ancient Greece, Beowolf of medieval England;
(b) “Literary epics,” like John Milton’s Paradise Lost (17th century England) are composed in writing and meant to be read
(rather than performed) to imitate “traditional epics.” 

Abrams lists the following defining features of the epic genre, based on Western epic models but applicable to many other cultures’ epics as well:

bullet Long narrative poem on serious subject, told in an elevated style using song,
poetry, rhythmic prose or chants,
with perhaps some unsung parts
bullet Centers on heroic or quasi-divine figures--tells adventures of extraordinary
people attuned to their destiny on whose action depend the fate of a group, a nation,
and/or humankind. 
Myth critic Northrop Frye (The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957) notes
that epic heroic characters have great powers and “ac[t] at or near the limits of desire.”
bullet Typical epic action features heroic deeds in battle and/or long, arduous journeys
or quests
. Myth critic Frye identifies the quest-myth as the central
mono-myth” of Western literature)-- war, battle, & power struggles are often
centered in and motivated by revenge, by desire to reclaim lost lands or lost rights;
by drive to fulfill hero/ine’s destiny, social obligations or to reaffirm and preserve
social unity and continuity of the culture.
bullet Gods, other supernatural beings and/or spirits take an active interest and role
in human affairs. 
Myth critic Frye observes that Western literature is “massively
funded by the powerful myths of the Bible and classical [Greek and Roman] culture."

Oral Epics, particularly in non-Western oral cultures, continue to live in contemporary national/regional traditions of song-recitation and dance-drama performed before a live audience.  Ceremonial-ritual performances of sacred-spiritual epics are believed to summon the hero/ine and his/her power, can entail spirit possession and trance-dance, and serve these functions:

bullet to ritually protect and cure,
bullet to tell the community’s/culture’s story and assert its self-identity
bullet to build cultural unity, preserve customs & values, and ensure the culture’s continuity
bullet to model desirable clan-social relations
bullet to warn of what could happen (rather than what did/will happen)

The Mali Empire: A Brief History

Who is Sundjata? Sundjata Keita was the 13th-century mystic hunter-warrior and epic founder of the great Mali Empire. So we must begin his story with a brief history of the Mali Empire, the one of the great medieval West African Empires of the *Sahel.
The continent of Africa has known many empires, but three great medieval empires successively arose in the West African Sahel, the *sub-Saharan *savannah region which spawned dynamic cultural and political centers because of its strategic importance for trade across the Sahara Desert and North Africa: the Ghana Empire (which called itself Wagadou; c. 300-1200), the Mali Empire (c. 1235-1468), and the Songhay [or Songhai] Empire (
Askia Muhammad Touré, 1493-1528, conquered the Mali Empire in 1495, and forged an empire larger than all the European states combined). The demise of the Songhay Empire came at the end of the 16th century, after its power base--control of overland commerce--was undermined by Portuguese seafarers, who opened Atlantic Ocean trade routes.

. . . *sahel ("sahel" is Arabic/Swahili for "shore" or "coast") at southern boundary of the Sahara Desert, . . . was likened to a sea. The desert was not an impossible barrier; many trade routes cross it from early times. The sahel was the intensive point of contact and trade between *sub-Saharan Africa (Africa south of the Sahara Desert), and North Africa and the world beyond, along with contact and trade along Atlantic and Indian Ocean seacoasts. In western Africa a number of black kingdoms emerge whose economic base lay in their control of trans-Saharan trade routes. Gold, kola nuts, and slaves were sent north in exchange for cloth, utensils, and salt. This trade enabled the rise of the great empires—Ghana, Mali, and Songhai--of the [West African] *savanna [aka: "savannah"] ("savanna" refers to a treeless or sparsely forested plain.)
bullet Map of Pre-Colonial Trade Routes in western Sahara Desert
(Prof. Jim Jones, History Dept., West Chester Univ.):
bullet Ancient African States: [Sorry, but these links has been broken ~ C. Agatucci, Jan. 2010]

Part of
Ancient African History, KAMMAASI / Sankofa Project Guide, 1999:

Learn more from African Timelines Part II: African Empires - 1st to 15th centuries
 URL: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/timelines/htimeline2.htm 

The Mali Empire was the second of these three great medieval empires, which united vast areas of West African forest, mountain, savanna, and desert, and a rich diversity of peoples, including cattle herders, farmers, fishermen, traders, and nomads.  History and legend credit Sundjata  Keita [aka: Sundjata, Son-Jara, Keyta, born c. C.E. 1210? – died 1255 or 1260?] with founding the Mali Empire in 1235. From the small state of Kangaba, Sundjata united heartland clans, challenged the dominant Soso peoples then ruling the Ghana Empire, and defeated Soso King Sumamuru Kante (aka: Sumanguru or Soumaoro Kanté ) at the Battle of Kirina in 1235. Under Sundjata and his successors, the Mali Empire was expanded from its center on the upper reaches of the Sénégal and Niger rivers, reaching west to the Atlantic Ocean, south into the forest, east beyond the Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. Three independent, freely allied states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces comprised the Mali Empire confederation, an enviable model of statecraft at its height. The Mali Empire surpassed the earlier Ghana Empire in wealth and influence by controlling not only the trade but also the mining of gold, and Mali kings reserved the right to dispense justice and monopolize trade. While Islam was officially adopted as the state religion of the Mali Empire, traditional African religious practices and spiritual beliefs continued in strength.

TIMBUCTU: With the patronage of the celebrated Malian emperor Mansa Musa (r. 1312-1337), Timbuctu was established as one of the major cultural and intellectual centers not only of Africa but of the entire world. Supporting the building of vast libraries and endowing "madrasas" (Islamic universities), Mansa Musa put Timbuctu on the medieval map, attracting the finest scholars, artists, and poets of Africa and the Middle East at that time.  Later, under the Songhai Empire's Askia Muhammad Touré (1493-1528), Timbuctu thrived as a commercial city of 100,000 people, drawing merchants and traders from all over Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  Timbuctu's University of Sankore, with its excellent libraries of manuscripts and faculty of learned mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, and jurists; earned a world reputation as a great intellectual center of the Muslim world, as one of the best places to study Law and Medicine, and drew numerous emissaries from medieval Europe.

Mande (aka: Manding) Peoples of Western Africa  (crossing modern geo-political boundaries of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, north Cote d’Ivoire, north Liberia, south Mauritania) speak closely related languages and share a common history and cultural heritage, after more than 2,000 years of contact and co-existence. Their shared traditions are bound by a proud history, and if the medieval Mali Empire and its exceptional hero Sundjata Keita remain stars of past glories, it is largely because of the ceaseless storytelling over the centuries of griots--oral historians, bards, and praise-singers of the Mande peoples. The story of Sundjata Keita is most cherished by Mande peoples, and most often repeated, in endless variations, by Mande griots, past and present.

Learn more about West African Peoples & Countries
from Art and Life in Africa Project, Univ. of Iowa, rev. 2003:
Bamana [AKA
Bambara]: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Bamana.html
Burkina Faso:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Burkina_Faso.html 
Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast]:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Cote_d'Ivoire.html 
The Gambia [Senegal]: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Senegal.html 
Guinea-Bissau: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Guinea-Bissau.html 
Guinea-Conakry: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Guinea-Conakry.html 
Liberia:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Liberia.html 
Mali: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Mali.html 
Senegal: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/countries/Senegal.html 
Wolof:  http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Wolof.html 

Epic Story of Sundjata

But first . . . On Translating Orature into Literature

There is no single definitive version or “text” of the Sundjata epic story.  Various versions of the Sundjata story have been and continue to be told, sung, performed by various African griots or bards (like Djeliba in the film Keita).  Oral performances vary and change over time, even when performed by the same singer-storyteller.  Content and performance traditions vary locally and regionally across the Mande cultural world of West Africa, as do the styles and interpretations of individual Mande griots (professional bards).  The summary of the Sundjata story given below is based on the version told by Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, from the village of Djeliba Koro, Guinea; which was translated into French and published as Soundjata ou Epoque Mandiginue  by D. T. Niane in 1960; which was in turn later translated into English by G.D. Pickett and published in 1965.  After you've seen the film Keita: Heritage of the Griot, you may notice differences between the summary of the legend of Sundjata given in this handout and the version told in the film. Another important version of the Sundjata epic available in English translation is that of Mandinka bard Fa-Digi Sisoko, from a performance he gave in Kita, Mali in 1968.  The oral performance was recorded, transcribed, translated and later published in English in John William Johnson’s The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986). And Johnson's translation of Fa-Digi Sisoko's 1968 performance is identical to neither Niane and Picket's version, nor to the film's version.  To ask, “So which is the right version?” is a very Western question, but historical accuracy or a definitive literary (written down) “text” may not be particularly important in African oral traditions--for example, to Mande peoples, who reverence Sundjata as a great cultural hero and continue to celebrate his memory in many varied oral epic performances of his story.  In any case, the similarities in these versions generally count for more than their differences.

Variant translations & spellings of African names can be confusing.  “Sundjata” is the spelling used in the English subtitles of the film Keita, but you will run across many other variants, such as “Sundiata,” "Sunjata," “Son-Jara,” and "Keyta."  Why so many variations?  Consider the layers and challenges of "translation" and "transliteration" that have been at work to produce English and French translations of African oral "texts."  The number of languages spoken in Africa today is estimated at between 700 and 2,000 (depending on who's doing counting and how "language" is defined); and most of these are oral-based languages that may have developed no complete system of transliterating the spoken language into writing. Ideally, a translator would be fluent in both the African culture and language to be translated, and in the second culture and language--let's say English or French, which already has a writing system worked out--into which the African language is to be translated.  The translator's "ear" attuned to spoken sounds of English or French, may not "hear" certain sounds in the African language s/he's trying to translate, and thus may not try to render a sound never heard into the romanized English and French writing system, while other translators do.  (Chinua Achebe's ethnic group may be found sometimes written as "Ibo" and sometimes as "Igbo.")   Consider, too, our imagined  translator is attuned to the ways pronunciation of spoken sounds are rendered or written down in French or English, depending on the language of the translator's intended audience.  When African languages have been written down or transcribed by English- or French-language scholars (whether by non-Africans or by Western-educated Africans), they typically “English-ify” or “French-ify” the spellings to approximate the native pronunciations: e.g., one African name is spelled “Segu” by the English translator but spelled “Segou” by the French.  We, too, "Americanize" foreign words, and it is also done to us:  We say we speak “English,” but the French say we speak “l’americain."  Comprehension in the familiar language of the translator's intended audience introduces changes like these: Spanish speakers translate "The United States" as "Los Estados Unidos," while U.S. maps name as "Spain" a country whose own people call it "Espana."  Different African peoples also call each other by names that may be different from the names a particular group calls itself.  Translators' and sources' intercultural perspectives, as well as their languages, are responsible for introducing more variant spellings and names into written translations.  The Fulbe people call Mande people what sounds like “Malinke.”  A French-language translator working with a Fulbe informant may thus render as "Malinke" what other groups name "Maninka,Mandinka," or "Manding." The Fulbe themselves are variously known by other African groups and differentiate themselves by varied terms, which have been transliterated as Fulani, Fula, Poular, Peul, and Peulh. And you are likely to find another West African group transliterated as "Bamana" as "Bambara."


Part I: An Extraordinary Childhood
Naré Fa Maghan [who is also called "Maghan Kon Fatta Konate" in the film Keita and was destined to become Sundjata's father] began his rule over the small kingdom of Mali, ca. CE/AD 1200.

[“Nare” is a place name in Mali, one of the capitals of the Kings of Mali.  “Maghan” or “Magan” is a given name Sundjara and his father share; some say it means “master.”  “Konate” is the clan name of Sundjara and his father’s family.] 

King Maghan was the son of a long lineage of distinguished hunters, known for their bravery, skill and their ability to communicate with jinns, spirits that hold influence over human lives. At this time, Manding [or Mande] rulers like Maghan had adapted the religion of Islam, but the new faith from the north had not altered their belief in the world of spirits. So when a hunter from the north [Hunter of Do in the film Keita] came to Maghan, tossed the cowries and read their prophecy, the king took it very seriously. The prophecy said that two hunters would come to the king with a very ugly woman; and despite her ugliness, the hunter said, the king must marry this woman, for she would bear him Mali's greatest king ever. The king's griot was skeptical and the king's first wife, Sassouma Berete, naturally was not pleased by the hunter's prophesy.

Sure enough, two hunters later appeared before the Mali king with a hunchbacked woman. They explained to the king that this woman, Sogolon Kedju, was in fact the human double of a buffalo that had ravaged the land of Do, killing hunters and citizens alike. Armed with secret knowledge, these two hunters had felled the buffalo and brought the woman to Mali. Hideous and wild, Sogolon was endowed with extraordinary powers.  She had been the hunter's prize, and now they were offering her to the king of Mali. Honoring the prophecy, Maghan quickly married Sogolon and, after an extended battle between them, they conceived a child.

Sassouma Berete, King Maghan's first wife, was jealous. She had the right to assume that her first-born son, Dankaran Touman, would claim the crown of Mali after his father died. Now this interloper Sogolon was pregnant and the hunter's prophesy predicted that she would bear a son who would become the greatest king of Mali.  Sassouma felt threatened and, in an effort to protect her son's rightful inheritance, plotted to kill Sogolon; but the mystic buffalo woman Sogolon's powers were too great. Sogolon lived on, gave birth to a son.  Initially named Mari Diata, the son of Sogolon came to be called Sogolon Diata, then eventually Sundjata [aka: Sundjata]. Even so, Sassouma Berete had cursed Sogolon's son and the curse had its effect.  The boy was born lame, and turned out to be lazy, gluttonous and ugly as well, to Sassouma's gratification.  At three years old, Sundjata could not walk and rarely spoke. Even at seven, the boy still crawled, spent all his time eating, and had no friends. The king was deeply disturbed. How could this pathetic child become a great king?  Still, on his death bed, the dying king honored the hunter's prophecy and gave his seemingly crippled son a gift that signified his desire that the boy should become king after all. That gift was a griot named Balla Fasséké, the son of the king's own griot [Bella Fasseke in the film Keita]. After king died, however, his first wife Sassouma saw to it that her son, Dankaran, claimed the throne.  Sundjata, still crawling on all fours, could do nothing about it.  Time passed..

One day, Sundjata's mother needed some leaves from the mighty baobob tree for her cooking, and she asked to borrow some from her enemy Sassouma Berete.  Sassouma agreed, but spitefully took the opportunity to insult Sogolon and her still useless son. At last, Sogolon could take no more. She returned to her son, crying and angry, and told him about Sassouma's insult.  Looking up, her son replies, "Cheer up, Mother. I am going to walk today."  Sundjata then commands the blacksmith to make for him the heaviest possible iron rod, which is carried out to the prostrate Sundjata before a large crowd of onlookers.  In some versions of the story, Sundjata successfully lifts himself upright,  trembling and sweating, and transforms himself using the iron rod, though he bends it into a bow in the process; on the spot his griot composes and sings "The Hymn to the Bow," a hymn which remains part of the Sundjata oral epic still sung by many Mande griots today.  However, in another popular version of the story--that dramatized in Keita the film--when Sundjata tries to lift himself upright with the seven-forged iron rod, a product of human technology, it cracks beneath his strength.  Then the Hunter of Do reappears and instructs Sogolon to fetch a supple branch of the sun tree, in which nyama, the natural occult powers of the mother, flow. Harnassing the nyama of the sun tree branch, Sundjata finally uprights himself and walks erect in the world for the first time. 

Part II: Exile

After Sundjata transformed himself into a kingly son fit to claim the throne as prophesized, he poses an even greater threat to the false king Dankaran and his plotting mother Sassouma.  Sogolon urges her son to take their people into exile for their safety, but before they can leave, Dankaran commands that  Balla Fasséké, Sundjata's griot, and Sundjata's half-sister be sent on a mission to the Soso sorcerer king, Soumaoro Kanté [aka: Sumamuru], who had been threatening all the kingdoms in the region with his growing army.  Sundjata was furious at the loss of his griot, but his mother convinced him that the time to set things right would come later. Promising he would return to claim his crown, Sundjata went into exile with a small entourage, not to return for many years.

Here’s the rest of the story that remains untold in the film Keita: Heritage of the Griot:

Sundjata came to manhood while traveling through kingdoms hundreds of miles from his home. Along the way, he learned to hunt, to fight, and to wield proverbs containing the wisdom of his ancestors.  One day, in the far off kingdom of Mema, Sundjata discovered people selling baobob leaves in the market. They had to be from Mali, for there were no baobob trees in Mema. The baobob sellers came to Sundjata's home and told him that the evil Sosso kin Soumaoro [aka: Sumamuru Kanté],  had conquered Mali and sent timid Dankaran into exile. At once, Sundjata began to gather a force of fighters, the core of his future army. Sundjata was determined to reclaim his kingdom, Mali. Sadly, on the eve of his departure from Mema, his mother Sogolon, the once powerful buffalo woman, died.

Meanwhile, Sundjata's griot Balla Fasséké and his half-sister remained captives in Soumaoro's court at Sosso. The brave griot, Balla Fasséké one day dared to enter the sorcerer king's secret chamber while the king was away. There, the griot found poisonous snakes writhing in urns, and owls standing watch over the severed heads of the nine kings Soumaoro had beaten. In the midst of this ghoulishness, stood the biggest balafon that Balla Fasséké had ever seen. Any ordinary mortal would have died instantly in this chamber, but the young griot had sorcery of his own, and even ventured to play the king's balafon, which produced a magnificent sound that charmed even the snakes and owls. Soumaoro returned livid to find the griot in his chamber, but Balla Fasséké, thinking fast, improvised a praise song to Soumaoro that was so clever it disarmed the evil king. Soumaoro then declared Balla his griot, making war between Soumaoro and Sundjata inevitable.

Part III: Return of the King

As Sundjata made his way homeward, he passed through all the kingdoms he had come to know during his exile, gathering fighters, archers and horsemen as he went. At Tabon, near the Malian city of Kita, Sundjata's army launched a surprise attack on Soumaoro's forces. Though a smaller force, Sundjata's side prevailed, sending the Sosso army into retreat. At the next battle, Sundjata and Soumaoro came face to face. Again, Sundjata's forces dominated the field through superior tactics, but Soumaoro escaped using his own formidable magic. One moment, the Sosso king stood before Sundjata on his black-coated horse, his tall helmet bristling with horns. But a mere instant later, Soumaoro stood on a far distant ridge. Sundjata despaired, feeling that his enemy's magic made him invincible.

Even as Sundjata's army grew, he knew he would need more that might to defeat Soumaoro. So he summoned soothsayers to council him on harnessing supernatural powers.  Following their advice, Sundjata ordered the sacrifice of 100 white oxen, 100 white rams, and 100 white cocks. As the ritual slaughter began, Sundjata's griot and his half-sister arrived at his camp. They had escaped captivity in Soumaoro's city.

Sundjata's half-sister then told him that she had been forced to be Soumaoro's wife, but that in doing so, she had learned the secret of his magic. Soumaoro's totem, his sacred animal, and so the source of his amazing power, was the cock. This animal had the power to destroy Soumaoro. Like Samson losing his long hair and with it his strength, like Achilles with his vulnerable heel, Soumaoro too had a weakness that his enemy could exploit. Armed with this knowledge, Sundjata fashioned a wooden arrow with a white cock's spur as its tip.

The great showdown between Soumaoro and Sundjata came at the battle of Kirina. On the eve of the battle, the two men observed the ritual of declaring war. Each sent an owl to the other's encampment, and the owls delivered messages of bravado.

"I am the wild yam of the rocks," boasted Soumaoro,  "Nothing will make me leave Mali."

Sundjata replied, "I have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks. Then, yam, I will eat you."

The verbal jousting continued. Soumaoro said, "I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit."

And Sundjata replied, "I am the ravenous cock. The poison does not matter to me."

"Behave yourself, little boy, or you will burn your foot, for I am the red-hot cinder."

"But me, I am the rain that extinguishes the cinder; I am the boisterous torrent that will carry you off."

"I am the mighty silk cotton tree that looks from on high on the tops of other trees."

"And I, I am the strangling creeper that climbs to the top of the forest creeper."

Having thus declared their intentions, Sundjata and Soumaoro [aka: Sumamuru Kanté], made war at Kirina. In the midst of full battle, Sundjata aimed his special arrow and fired. The cock's spur grazed Soumaoro's shoulder, and all was lost for the Sosso king. By the time Sundjata's victorious forces entered Soumaoro's city and opened his secret chamber, the snakes there were almost dead and the owls lay flopping on the ground. Victorious, Sundjata invited the leaders of all the 12 kingdoms of the savanna to come to Kaba, a city in old Mali. There, he told them they could keep their kingdoms, but that all would now join in a great, new empire. From that day forth, Sundjata's word became the law respected throughout the 12 kingdoms. The Empire of Mali was born, stretching from the forests of the south far into the Sahara Desert, north of the great Niger River bend.  Sundjata ruled over this massive, thriving empire until his death in the year 1255. His empire survived for more than two centuries.

**Post Script**

"Mali is eternal," says the griot Mamadou Kouyaté, concluding his account of the Sundjata epic. "But never try, wretch, to pierce the mystery which Mali hides from you. Do not go and disturb the spirits in their eternal rest. Do not ever go into the dead cities to question the past, for the spirits never forgive. Do not seek to know what is not to be known."

Plot summary above was adapted from Banning Eyre/World Music Productions' synopsis
of the Sundiata story as told by Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, from the village of Djeliba Koro, Guinea;
which was translated into French and published as
Soundjata ou Epoque Mandiginue  by D. T. Niane in 1960
(which was later translated into English by G.D. Pickett and published in 1965):
http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/aoi/html/Sundjata.html [last accessed July 1997]

What is a Griot? [French term pronounced GREE-oh]

Griots are historians, praise-singers and musical entertainers, with strong past and living traditions in many African cultures.
In Mande cultures, traditional Griots are specialists of the spoken/sung word and the power—which the Mande call nyama—that it releases. 

"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."

-- 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.
13 Aug. 2004 <http://www.fandm.edu/departments/Anthropology/Bastian/ANT269/man.html>.

Nyama are occult powers and primal energies of creation and destruction.
(handlers of nyama)
are highly skilled initiated artisans of Mande hereditary professional guilds, whose members are trained to wield and release nyama in practicing their professions, including:

bullet jeli (griot* or bard, loremaster, praise-singer)
bulletnumu (blacksmith - great occult power & authority)
bulletgarankule (leatherworker) 
bulletkule (woodworker)

*Note that specific West African terms for the Griot (a generic French term) vary by language and culture, including jeli, jali, gewel, gawlo, mabo, gesere, jesere, etc.

Traditional Mande Griots belong to special castes--nyamakalaw, or handlers of nyama--and have a unique status in Mande societies.  In the film Keita: Heritage of the Griot, we are introduced to Djeliba - trans. "great Griot"  - of Mabo Keita and the contemporary Keita family, which can trace its noble genealogy back to the epic hero Sundjata Keita, founder of the great medieval Mali Empire. In the film's parallel past story of Sundjata, both his father's and his own griots also play significant roles.  Educated and wise, great griots tutored princes and gave wise counsel to kings to help them deal with current dilemmas, by interpreting and applying the griot's detailed knowledge of history, as well as the griot's deep spiritual and practical wisdom.  Mande griots have traditionally served these functions:

bullet historian: chronicler, analyzer, interpreter of history of family, clan, village, region, culture;
bulletpreserver of clan lineage and collective heritage of a culture, its social customs and values;
bulletmediator between spiritual and human worlds
bulletadvisor and conscience of kings, as well as of other powerful patrons
who had the means to retain their own griots;
bulletpreserver of social customs and values; of collective heritage, culture, and clan lineage;
bullet mediator between human parties (e.g. griots drew upon family or village history
to help arrange marriage terms and mediate disputes).

Traditionally, the Mande jeli, or griot, inherits the calling to this special profession, learns family and clan secrets and skills passed down through generations, by undergoing years of spiritual and artistic training in successively challenging stages of initiation. Mastery of jeliya, the griot's ancient art, encompasses:


occult spiritual secrets of the spoken word, of its music and musical instruments;


advanced education in the lore and wisdom traditions of villages, clans, cultures; as well as wisdom in their interpretation and practical application to current situations;


amazing feats of memory: competent Griots were expected and able to speak/perform for hours, drawing upon detailed knowledge and practiced memorization to recite epic histories like that of Sundjata (full recitation of which could take more than sixty hours and many days), genealogies and significant events (e.g. births, deaths, marriages, hunts, seasons, wars) of family, clan, village, culture;


sophisticated memorized and improvisational performance skills in the art of chanting and singing poetry: griots do not just memorize set poems, songs, and epics, and then repeat them the same way in each performance; griots learn open-ended poetic-song formulas and must develop skills in creative improvisation,
for an accomplished griot is expected to adjust content and adapt performance to the needs and situations of different audiences and occasions, of local traditions and patrons, of changing values and social conditions;


performance skills in playing certain musical instruments: especially the balafon, a wooden xylophone, which was probably the original jeli instrument and is featured in the Sundjata story;  the ngoni, a small traditional lute; and the kora, a 21-string cross between a harp and a lute.


"Call-and-Response" performance skills: the griot must develop a strong, proud voice to "Call" lines of poetry and song, particularly in performance of grand epics like Sundjata; "Response" to the Griot's "Call" is requisite in communal interactive performance, which may be provided by an accompanying chorus of singers and musicians, but certainly by local patrons and audience members, for all are expected to participate.

Some of the above characteristics are apparent in "Sunjata (Tabato, Guinea-Bissau)": Track 2; "Sunjata (Kolda, Senegal)": Track 7;
from the CD: Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa & Beyond. Ellipsis Arts, 1997.

Contemporary Griots: "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 [griottes]  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."

--Banning Eyre/World Music Productions
From: http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/aoi/html/griot.html [last accessed July 1997]  

Excerpts from Sundjata Oral Epic

CD: Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa & Beyond. Ellipsis Arts, 1997.  "Sunjata (Tabato, Guinea-Bissau)": Track 2; "Sunjata (Kolda, Senegal)": Track 7.

An oral recitation with musical accompaniment of the complete Sundjata epic poem can last more than sixty hours and many days. But most performances recount only part of the epic, and the film Keita dramatizes only the events surrounding the birth, boyhood and exile of Sundjata (corresponding to lines 356 to 1647 in John William Johnson's standard translation of The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.)  The following examples are taken from John William Johnson's translation of Epic of Son-Jara [alternative spelling of Sundjata], as performed by griot Fa-Digi Sisoko, in 1968. 

African Oral Epics like Sundjata present complex stories in episodes organized by place of action and theme groups, integrating praise names and praise songs, genealogies, incantations, prayers, curses, oaths, and proverbs. 

From Episode One: Prologue in Paradise

[Praise Song, ll. 1-6]

Nare Magan Konate!  [= Sundjata: “Nare” is a place name in Mali, one of the capitals of the Kings of Mali. 
“Maghan” or “Magan” is a given name Sundjara and his father share; some say it means “master.” 
“Konate” is the clan name of Sundjara and his father’s family.
Sorcerer-Seizing-Sorcerer! [Sundjata Praise Name]
A man of power is hard to find. [Proverb]
And four mastersingers
O Kala Jula Sangoyi! [legendary bard of Old Mali]
Sorcerer-Seizing-Sorcerer…. [Sundjata Praise Name]          (Mmm)

[Adam, the forefather, & his successors evoked, ll. 7-30]

I sing of Biribiriba                                                                 (Indeed)
Of Naran Magan Konate!….
[Sundjata Praise Name]
Should you bump against it,
It will bump against you. 
 [Proverb]                        (Indeed)

b.  Song mode is used to celebrate especially important plot events, like the following:

From Episode Four: The Manden

Elder woman gives newborn Son-Jara gets his first praise-name, ll. 1123-1145]:

She lifted the edge of the cloth….
From the very top of Son-Jara’s
[Sundjata’s] head,         (Indeed)
To the very tip of his toes, all hair!
The old mother went outside.
She laughed out: “Ha! Birth-givers! Hurrah!
“The little mother have borne a lion-thief."
                    (It is true)
Thus gave the old mother Son-Jara his name.
….Son-Jara, Nare Magan Konate.
Simbon, Lion-Born-of-the-Cat
. [Sundjata Praise Names]     (Indeed)

[King Dankaran Touman’s mother Sassouma Berete hexes Son-Jara (aka: Sundjata) to cripple him, ll. 1151-1159]:

The Berete woman,
She summoned to her a holy-man,
Charging him to pray to God,
So Son-Jara would not walk.
                                            (It is true)
And summoned to her an Omen Master,
For him to read the signs in sand,
So Son-Jara could not walk.
                                             (It is true)
For nine years, Son-Jara crawled upon the ground
Magan Konate could not rise.                                           (It is true)

Apt proverbs, with no break in the oral performance, often serve as transitions between major episodes:

[Transitional Proverb between episodes, ll. 944-945]

What sitting will not solve,
Travel will resolve….                                                          (It is true)

Recommended Web Sources: West African Music & Cultures
From THE CORA CONNECTION ["Kora" and "Cora" are alternative spellings]: "Your link to the rich Music Traditions of West Africa"
(David Gilden & Banning Eyre, 1999):

West Africa: The Land and Its Peoples: http://www.coraconnection.com/pages/geo.html
"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?: http://www.coraconnection.com/pages/balaphone.html 
"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"]: http://www.coraconnection.com/pages/WhatisKora.html
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": http://www.coraconnection.com/pages/ngoni.html 
"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."

A Spirit Song Honoring the Kora, by William McLane
E-mail communication, August 2001

Dear Cora,

I am in the midst of a research project following the spirit songs of the African Diaspora.  As our own rhythm culture develops and matures I am curious as to how these powerful, evocative songs, and all they represent, will influence and be incorporated.  For as you are undoubtedly aware, if you follow a drum song far enough, you will encounter a spirit. The community drumming movement is a rapidly growing and powerful force in our culture.  Who would have guessed that Olatunji's dream of a drum in every house would come so far so quickly?  I facilitate dozens and dozens of drum circles each year.  Each year they are larger and more musical.  It is in this population that I observe these wonderful sacred songs so hungrily devoured. . . .

. . . here is one verse of a favorite song of mine that is an honoring and celebration of time well spent, music well played, and friends well met.  I offer this verse (phonetically) because it is honoring your name sake, the Kora.

C  // Bb  A  G  //
Salia naw oh salia

Bb / /   A   G   Bb   /  A  
Kora bot toe bay cume ah lah

G   F   Eb  D  C  //
Naw nee fah oh salia

The letters are the notes of the melody line, a straight forward dorian mode.  The slashes // mean to repeat the note.  Use straight quarter notes and you'll get the picture if not the true rhythm.


William McLane

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H.  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed.  Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Ancient African History. The Sankofa Project. 1999. 13 Aug. 2004 <http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Classroom/9912/africanhist.html>.

Art and Life in Africa Project.  School of Art & Art History, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City, IO.  Rev. 2003. 11 August 2004  <http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/index.html>.

Gilden, David, and Banning Eyre ("Musicians & Explorers" of the "Boston-based West African folk ensemble Cora Connection"). The Cora Connection. 1999. 11 Aug. 2004 <http://www.coraconnection.com/>.

Johnson, John William, ed. & trans.  Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition. Text as performed by griot Fa-Digi Sisoko. 1986. African Epic Series, ed. Thomas A. Hale and John W. Johnson. Bloomington: Midland-Indiana Univ. Press, 1992.

McLane, William. [A Spirit Song Honoring the Kora.] E-mail communication [wrmclane@yahoo.com]. August 2001.

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