The gift of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

The word is material. They can kill or heal, make happy or disgrace. The word can change the fate of a person and even a nation. Griots know this well and use it in their practices


Griots are an endogamous caste of professional storytellers, musicians and singers in West African countries (Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Gambia and some others). The mission of the caste is the oral transmission of historical knowledge, legends, myths, philosophical and spiritual traditions.

For more than a thousand years, griots have played an important role in the life of African peoples, shaping the political and religious views of fellow citizens. Currently, griots have to learn new professions. Many of them become artists, musicians, journalists and perform on stages, on the radio, as part of folklore musical ensembles

The gift of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

Lamine Sonko

Born in Senegal on the outskirts of Dakar in 1984 in a family of griots (one of 17 children). He received all the knowledge necessary for the griot from his parents: he mastered singing and playing various instruments, studied Arabic chronicles, the Koran, memorized many myths, legends and fairy tales. He also studied at a private music and ballet school.

Since 1999, he has been working on the production of the play African Antigone as a composer and actor. He toured with this play in Senegal, France, Switzerland. Currently leads the big band African intelligence. He gives concerts at home and abroad: he plays the lute, drum and guitar, sings, tells the story of his people.

I know what I'm talking about; what I don’t know, I don’t say … We always begin our story with this magic phrase.

Griots have a legend. Two brothers got lost in the desert. The younger one was so weak from hunger that he could no longer walk. Then the elder quietly cut off a piece of flesh from his thigh and fed it to the younger. When he came to his senses and saw his brother's wound, he swore in gratitude that he would serve the elder all his life, sing of his noble deed … This young man became the first griot in history.

In the language of my father, Mandingos, griots are called jellis. The same word is pronounced, which in our country means blood. And if culture is the blood in the veins of the people, then we, griots, are its heart, without which the flow of this blood is impossible.

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Oral tradition

Earlier, African rulers and local nobility had their court griots. They were famous for their acting talents, they knew many poems and stories, they played music beautifully. Griots were also sages and philosophers, their opinion was listened to. The powerful of this world often needed our advice, although they were more literate than the griots: they knew how to read and write, they even exchanged messages. And the common people did not know the written language. Our knowledge is not in books.

The power of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

Written knowledge you will read and understand in your own way. Hence, a distortion of meaning is possible. And oral knowledge is transmitted along with correct comprehension. The most important thing for jeli is precisely the understanding of: cosmic laws, universal ones. And then this wisdom is put into a verbal, song form.

The gift of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

In my childhood, the lessons were only oral. And I say for sure: you need to be able to really listen in order to learn something. It is difficult, but much more effective than dreaming about books alone! When I was growing up, my father worked with us children for seven hours a day. He taught us songs, legends, musical rhythms. They contain our history, legends, and advice for all occasions.

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In a word, not with a fist

Griot children have to give a lot of energy to study. Therefore, they are treated differently in Africa. They are often given gifts and treats. Our children are not allowed to fight: from an early age they are taught to defend the right with the help of the word, not the fist.

Once my brother quarreled with a peer and received a slap from him. But he did not dare to fight back, disobeying our law. But resentment boiled, and he complained to his mother. She had to go to the fighter's house and sing a special “accusatory” song. The boy's parents were forced to pay off with an expensive gift, and his son was punished with rods.

Not all griot children become griots – some lack the ability. When home schooling ends and a young jeli is already performing, he still continues to study, and so on until 40-50 years old, until he becomes a Master – a senior griot, mentor of the younger generation …

Griots who do not serve rich families are constantly traveling. They wander from one village to another, entertain the people and receive rewards for this: gifts, food, lodging for the night. Less often – money. It is impossible not to thank the griot: people believe that the unpaid work of the jeli will turn his songs of praise into curses …

My father was a wandering griot until he married my mother. For as long as I can remember as a child, my mother has always sung. She cooked food & nbsp; – and sang. She did housework & nbsp; – and sang. Each of our songs is a fascinating story.

The power of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

Griot women sing in low voices, while men, on the contrary, in high voices. The best compliment to a male singer is to say that he sings like a woman. When women perform in front of an audience, they most often sing or recite stories. Griot men also play musical instruments.

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The power of music

The kora lute and the sabar drum are our main instruments. African music is a hidden realm. Here you see how we sing, dance to the drum by the fire, and think: they are having fun. In fact, this is an ancient ritual. By making movements in the same rhythm, people begin to understand each other better.

The drum language is familiar to everyone. According to one of the African legends, the very first God created a drummer … If you are in love – this is one rhythm. If you propose to a girl, it's different. If you heal the sick – the third. And so on. The word has magical power. And accompanied by music, drum rhythm, it becomes even more significant. That is why, for example, the orders of the ruler used to be brought to the subjects under drum roll. Birth or death, hunting or battle – all our main life events and rituals are also always accompanied by music and drumming.

In the initiation ceremony we practice, the griots not only play music, but also witness the trials that young people go through. With griots, one cannot be disgraced: we will not hesitate to immediately inform the entire tribe about the weakness or cowardice shown.

The gift of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

The gift of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live

Only the wedding is more important than the initiation holiday. And no wedding is complete without griots. Guests are not specifically invited to an African wedding. People come as soon as they hear our songs and music.

Lower caste

As for the griots themselves, marriages between them and other members of the tribe are not welcome. For an ordinary person to marry a daughter to a Jeli is a misalliance. Our attitude is twofold. On the one hand, griots are loved, respected and sometimes even feared. On the other hand, they are still considered a lower caste.

We are wise enough not to attach importance to social status. Satisfaction with life —in our language, misuya —is the foundation of the Griot worldview. We have the main thing: people need us. And in sorrow, and in joy, and in health, and in illness.

Healing is another of our missions. In Africa, they believe that ailments are sent by the gods as punishment for non-compliance with universal laws. As soon as the law is violated, an energy imbalance arises between a person and the world of spirits, from which a person falls ill. And in order to eliminate this imbalance, the griots hold special ceremonies of reconciliation with the gods.

My dream is to open a medical center in my native village. One where modern doctors would be helped to heal sick griots, music and words to inspire the patient to recover.

We treat, educate or just entertain – as a rule, we perform outdoors. And almost always we have to hide from the scorching African sun in the shade of baobabs. Baobab is a very important tree for us, both in life and in death.

When griots die, it is the trunks of baobabs that become their last refuge. The people still believe that jellis are endowed with occult power, therefore it is impossible to bury us in the ground, otherwise you will incur crop failure and other troubles. And the baobab in African culture is the guardian of the earth. Here, ordinary people believe that he will save them from our griot “filth” …

I was born a griot, a griot and I will die. Probably, they will bury me in a baobab too… And while I am alive, my Word is also alive. It is free and pure of lies. This is the Word of my father and my father's father, and I will deliver it just as I received it…

The gift of speech and the lower caste: how professional African storytellers live


Area 196,722 km² (86th in the world)
Population~ 17,200,000 (72nd place)
Population density 82 people/km²

ATTRACTIONSthe island of Gore (former center of the slave trade); pink lake Retba; Djoudj National Park (ornithological reserve, wintering place for one and a half million birds).
TRADITIONAL DISHES tiboudien – fish with rice and vegetables in tomato sauce; maffe – meat in a sauce of coconut milk and peanuts, baked in a pit; avocado-o-shrimp – avocado stuffed with shrimp.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS coffee with pepper and cloves, palm wine.
SOUVENIRS amber beads, hair ornaments from ancient coins, bracelets, wicker baskets.

DISTANCE from Moscow to Dakar ~ 6500 km (from 9 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIME strong> is 3 hours behind Moscow
VISA issued at the consulate in advance
CURRENCY West African franc (1000 XOF ~ 1.47 USD)


Material published in the magazine “Around the World” No. 11, November 2019, partially updated in September 2022

Natasha Bryson

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