The Legacy of the Griots

Taylor Gmahling - Marketing Representative

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In West Africa, griots are sacred storytellers and have for centuries captured the most important histories and cultural legacies to pass on. Here’s what we learned from them.

The sacred profession of Griot (pronounced “gree-OH”) or Griotte1 is particularly a West African tradition, common in places like Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Gambia.2

Griots were originally court musicians who sang at weddings, naming ceremonies, and religious celebrations. The role eventually evolved into one of advising nobility and serving as messenger to the community.3

Griots have worn (and still do wear!) many hats within their communities. They are the historians, genealogists, musicians, advisors to nobility, storytellers, advocates, messengers, ambassadors, and praise singers.4

How does one become a Griot?

You must be born into the role. The rich and complex traditions are passed down through generations of masters.

Griots use stories for EVERYTHING, including

  • interpreting the universe,
  • resolving natural and physical phenomena,
  • teaching morals,
  • maintaining cultural values,
  • passing on methods of survival, and
  • praising God.5

“Without us, the names of kings would be forgotten, we are the memory of humankind. By the spoken word, we give life to the facts and actions of kings in front of the young generation.” – Griot Mamadou Kouyaté

Let’s take a closer look at three things we learned from the storytelling masters of West Africa.

#1: Have a Clear Message

We have already established that Griots used storytelling for EVERYTHING (see list above). The stories that the Griots tell come in many different forms: fables, epic narratives, proverbs, songs, genealogies, etc…

But how do Griots choose which method of storytelling to use?

It all starts with the message.

For example, if a Griot is teaching the importance of a historical event they may create an epic narrative around a well-known and real figure (exaggerating a bit here and there for dramatic effect, of course). If they’re trying to teach a lesson, they may recount a fable or something else with a moral.

Lesson? The way that you transmit your message matters.

#2: Use Rhythm and Repetition

Repetition of language and rhythm are two important tools Griots use to enhance their oral storytelling. Griots often repeat words, phrases, refrains, sounds, whole lines and even stanzas.6

Why?

The repetition of language and rhythm makes the stories both easier to understand and recall from memory. Most importantly, it allows audiences who are familiar with the stories to actively participate in their telling and feel a sense of belonging to the community.7

Lesson? Audiences like to feel a sense of belonging. Having a common thread throughout your stories is a great way to build that feeling.

#3: More Than Words

A good storyteller knows how to entertain and inspire as well as educate!

Griots don’t simply read a story aloud or recite it from memory.

Along with being kickass storytellers, Griots are wonderfully talented poets, songwriters, performers, and musicians. Each story is a carefully crafted performance and, more often than not, accompanied by an instrument called the Kora8

Griots are masters because they create an experience, rather than just tell a story. They use gestures, song, dance, costumes, facial expressions and impersonations to captivate their audience.

Lesson? Simply conveying a message isn’t enough. You must create an experience with your stories to captivate your audience.

The Moral Of This Story

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools at your company’s disposal! When done right and created intentionally, a great story can convey your unique message to the world, captivate your audience and turn your listeners into a community!

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Female Griots are known as Griottes (pronounced “gree-UT”). Although women were allowed to step into this traditional role it was in a lesser form than the men because women were still expected to uphold family responsibilities. Utley, Octavia. (2008.) “Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive.” Retrieved from http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.01.08_u
  2. Utley, Octavia. (2008.) “Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive.” Retrieved from http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.01.08_u
  3. World Affairs Council of Houston. (?). “Oral Traditions of Africa.” Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53cfd0e5e4b057663ea1bc61/t/57b1e0b746c3c406dd172afd/1471275383444/Oral+Traditions+of+West+Africa.pdf
  4. Utley, Octavia. (2008.) “Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive.” Retrieved from http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.01.08_u
  5. Utley, Octavia. (2008.) “Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive.” Retrieved from http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.01.08_u
  6. Utley, Octavia. (2008.) “Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive.” Retrieved from http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.01.08_u
  7. World Affairs Council of Houston. (?). “Oral Traditions of Africa.” Retrived from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53cfd0e5e4b057663ea1bc61/t/57b1e0b746c3c406dd172afd/1471275383444/Oral+Traditions+of+West+Africa.pdf
  8. The kora is a stringed instrument similar to a harp, but with some qualities of a lute. Nelson, Ken. (2018). Ancient Africa for Kids: Griots and Storytellers. Ducksters. Retrieved from https://www.ducksters.com/history/africa/griots_storytellers.php

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • James, John. (2012). “THE GRIOTS OF WEST AFRICA – MUCH MORE THAN STORY-TELLERS.” Retrieved from http://www.goethe.de/ins/za/prj/wom/osm/en9606618.htm
  • Nelson, Ken. (2018). Ancient Africa for Kids: Griots and Storytellers. Ducksters. Retrieved from https://www.ducksters.com/history/africa/griots_storytellers.php
  • Utley, Octavia. (2008.) “Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive.” Retrieved from http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_09.01.08_u
  • World Affairs Council of Houston. (?). “Oral Traditions of Africa.” Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53cfd0e5e4b057663ea1bc61/t/57b1e0b746c3c406dd172afd/1471275383444/Oral+Traditions+of+West+Africa.pdf

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