Magazine article Insight on the News

Griots Tell Tall Tales That Teach

Magazine article Insight on the News

Griots Tell Tall Tales That Teach

Article excerpt

Lorrd-Lorenzo Calender II flaps his arms as fast as he can. He's a vulture this morning, swooping down to offer rides to a rabbit, squirrel and monkey played by students at Smothers Elementary School in Washington.

But the vulture doesn't really want to transport the overly trusting animals. He wants to devour them, one by one -- until the monkey uses his imaginary tail to strangle the wicked bird, forcing him to promise never to kill again. The students laugh and cheer. They also learn a timeless lesson: Don't go with strangers.

Mission accomplished. "It's a tradition that's as early as time," says Calender, smiling himself as he discusses his profession -- that of storyteller, or griot. "A griot must teach.... They must continue the heritage through the stories that are told."

Calender, 43, has been spinning his rich stories since the early eighties, full time since 1991. His company, Celebrations of the Oral Tradition, books engagements for himself and other griots. He also trains teenage apprentices, two or three assisting him during performances.

As far back as 13th-century West Africa, griots were expected to preserve tales of battles, victories, births, deaths and marriages. Like the Celtic bards of England, they fashioned cultural information into stories or songs and related it with spellbinding artistry. The tradition survives today in Africa and has been transplanted to the United States. Though no one knows just how many griots are in this country, their numbers are on the rise and so are the people seeking them. …

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