Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Hearing Voices, Writing Music: Shay Youngblood's Reconfiguration of the Griot

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Hearing Voices, Writing Music: Shay Youngblood's Reconfiguration of the Griot

Article excerpt

There are three common misconceptions about griots: they are a product of the past; if they still exist, they do so only in Africa; and they are all male. Contrary to these beliefs, griots are alive and well both in their traditional roles as the official musician- historians in various regions in West Africa and in a wide array of transcultured forms in the Americas.1 Mainly known for their function as official praise singers for African dignitaries, griots are also the chroniclers of entire tribes, their teachers, negotiators, and exhorters. The first scholar to study in depth the versatility of the griots, Thomas Hale provides contemporary readers with a better understanding of this ancestral tradition.2 Stressing that in each of the dozen positions they occupy these "wordsmiths" are at the very center of the social and political life of various communities in Africa, he offers a strikingly different description from what European observers like the Portuguese Valentin Fernandes in the sixteenth century, the British Richard Jobson in the seventeenth century, or the French De Lajaille in the eighteenth century did when they portrayed griots as homeless troubadours and undesirable outcasts.3 Even in the works of nineteenth-century writers, like M. L'abbé Boilat's Esquisses Sénégalaises or Colonel Frey's Côte Occidentale d'Afrique: Vues-Scènes-Croquis, griots have at best been compared with troubadours and at worst with contempt-deserving beggars. Frey, for instance, calls them "les griots sont les gens du monde les plus philosophes et les plus paresseux" ("the most philosophical and yet laziest people on earth" 129). Since the eighteenth century, various reports have started to explore a wider array of the functions of these musicians, but their profession still has a stigma attached to it.

Then as now, griots not only teach about the past but also "prompt people to immediate action by their words" (Hale 40-41), as for instance during the war of Independence of Guinea-Bissau in the 1970s or the opening of the new Griot Hall in Mali in 1985.4 They maintain historical and genealogical records just as much as they play key diplomatic, advisory, and military roles. In these ways, they serve as an indispensable bridge between past, present, and future. As griot Foday Suso claims, they are "walking libraries, with knowledge of the past, present and future of our people" (26). Far from being mere entertainers or beggars, they possess an extensive historical expertise and an equally impressive set of oratory, musical, and argumentative skills that enable them to counsel and convince others regarding their personal and political decisions.

It is in this wider sense that the griots have adapted to a new set of circumstances while maintaining their functions at the center of their newly-built communities in the New World. As Adam Banks contends, "the griot is sometimes an entertainer, sometimes a counselor to chiefs and leaders, but regardless of the range between playful and serious, the griot is absolutely central to the life of his or her society" (22). Though transformed, their position in the Americas has been just as essential as on the other side of the Atlantic, if not more. Although Europeans in the Americas purposely split ethnic and linguistic groups to prevent communication and uprisings on their plantations, griots used their musical talents to enable disparate groups of transplanted Africans to find a common discourse. Cut off from the rest of society, prevented access to literacy, and treated as cattle, enslaved members of the African Diaspora could still preserve traditions, a sense of self, and a means of communication to sustain a spirit of hope and resistance.

Once slavery was abolished and transplanted Africans and their descendants were finally allowed to have a formal education, the griots of the Americas underwent a second transformation: instead of exclusively relying on orality they merged the archive and the repertoire, oral and written modes of expression to take advantage of their newly-acquired access to the written word, the press, and the publishing industry. …

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