Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples

Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples

Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples

Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples


A pillar of the West African oral tradition for centuries, this epic traces the adventures and achievements of the Mande hero, Sunjata, as he liberates his people from Sumaworo Kanté, the sorcerer king of Soso, and establishes the great medieval empire of Mali. David Conrad conveys the strong narrative thrust of the Sunjata epic in his presentation of substantial excerpts from his translation of a performance by Djanka Tassey Condé. Readers approaching the epic for the first time will appreciate the translation's highly readable, poetic English as well as Conrad's informative Introduction and notes. Scholars will find the familiar heroes and heroines taking on new dimensions, secondary characters gaining increased prominence, and previously unknown figures emerging from obscurity.


This previously unpublished version of the great West African narrative popularly known as the "Sunjata epic" is being made available in response to a long-felt need for a text that is formatted in a reasonable approximation of the original performance values of the narrator, but which is at the same time readily comprehensible to readers previously unfamiliar with Manding cultures and their most definitive oral tradition. The narrative chosen for this book was recorded in five original sessions and several follow-ups in 1994 at Fadama, a village near the Niandan River in northeastern Guinea. The performer was the jeli ngara (master bard) Djanka Tassey Condé (d. 10/10/97), who was the last of the great Condé bards of Fadama. One of Tassey's brothers was the locally famous bard Mamadi Condé, who died in 1994. Tassey and Mamadi were sons of Babu Condé (d. 1964), one of the greatest bards who lived during the colonial era. Babu served as an informant for the historian Yves Person, and for the novelist Laye Camara. At the time of the Condé-Camara collaboration in 1963, Laye Camara described Babu as the most celebrated bard in upper Guinea. Djibril Tamsir Niane (who first brought the Sunjata epic to the attention of the English-speaking world in his popular but reconstructed Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali "Longman 1965") was well acquainted with Babu and his sons Mamadi and Tassey, and it was Niane who introduced me to the Condé bards of Fadama in 1994.

The reservoir of knowledge from which the present text is drawn makes up part of the intellectual legacy left by Babu Condé and his forebears. One of Babu's ancestors, Frémori Condé, is said to have been the jeli of Imuraba Keita, who was a descendant of Sunjata's brother Manden Bori. The Fadama Condé bards' perception of Mande history is influenced by a collective family belief that they are related to the Condé and Diarra of the ancient chiefdom, or jamana, of DÒ NI KIRI (tr. "Dò and Kiri"), which was the homeland of three of the most important female characters in Mande epic tradition. Daughters of the ruling family of Dò ni Kiri, the Condé sisters are identified as Dò Kamissa the Buffalo Woman; Sogolon Condé, the mother of Sunjata;

Camara 1984: 23.

Camara 1984: 28.

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