Diaspora, Identity, and Religion: New Directions in Theory and Research

By Waltraud Kokot; Khachig Tölölyan et al. | Go to book overview

6

Griots, roots and identity in the African diaspora

Hauke Dorsch

Recent discussions in anthropology about the concept of diaspora are theoretically interesting but lack empirical studies. This article aims to provide some ethnographic information about the African diaspora. It uncovers the role of a West African group of professional traditional musicians and historians for the construction of African migrants' identities as well as for African-American reconstructions of lost 'roots' in Africa. These historians and musicians serve as a common symbol linking different layers of the African diaspora.

Some years ago I asked a Malian musician living in Hamburg why he played reggae instead of the music typical for the traditional musicians - so called griots - from whom he was descended. This question - which already in the moment of asking I thought to be quite stupid - fortunately provoked a very interesting answer. He replied that whenever he played Manding music people would ask him about Arab and Spanish influences - and possibly these are existent because of historical connections. But he was looking for a musical expression of a 'deeper African identity' not 'deformed' by Islamic or European cultures. Reggae meant to him a spiritual, revolutionary music demanding the equality of races. Although reggae originated in Jamaica, in every African country one would find people claiming that they have a local rhythm, reminiscent of reggae, he said. Reggae is therefore truly Black music. 1

These remarks will serve as point of departure for some observations concerning, first, the meaning of locality, especially in its imagined form of the homeland myth, second, music as a means of transporting Black identities and, finally, to enable an exploration of the potential usefulness of the concept of diaspora to describe the different layers of migrations of people of African origin. To explore these, I must begin by defining the word 'griot', because it is indeed an important link connecting different levels of the African diaspora.


Griots, roots and homelands

Griots and griottes 2 - male and female bards - are not only musicians but regarded as an endogamous group of artisans of communication in their societies. They are entertainers who sing, who tell stories and who play musical instruments like the kora and any instrument common in pop music. They are mediators in disputes,

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