What are not musical sounds

Knowledge pool
Sounds of the world

  • Kora player Modibo comes from a griot family
  • Tuareg griot Abasse sings about his homeland

The Griots were responsible for music in West Africa, in contrast to other African peoples, where there were no “professional musicians”. The art of the griots (and, to a lesser extent, the female griottes) consisted of a unity of musical and linguistic performance. Born into their class, they practiced playing the kora, the balafon or the n'goni from early childhood and learned the countless long stories - the myths of the ancient Sudan empires - by heart; as well as the lists of rulers and the various chants that could also have as their content the everyday world. They were the memory of a non-scripted society. Her verbal power and her linguistic skills also made her in demand as mediators or marriage brokers.

Social position of the griots

They formed a caste of their own that married one another and stood a bit outside of society - with ambivalent reputations. On the one hand, they were admired for their artistry, and important events in life (such as weddings) or any celebrations in general were unthinkable without their accompaniment. They were in demand as eulogists and poets, recognized as authorities or even feared. On the other hand, their social status was low. Their dependence on a permanent “patron” who gave them material security, or perhaps even from donors who changed from appearance to appearance, was sometimes viewed as parasitic.

Griots today

Even today, a respected businessman or politician still affords his own personal griot. But many griots also find a livelihood in modern music and show business. In Senegal, for example, almost all contemporary musicians, stage actors, TV and radio presenters come from griot families. In rural areas, weddings are the main source of income. And you can still recognize a West African by his family name as belonging to the Griots. In Mali these are names like: Diabaté, Konté, Kanté, Koité, Koyaté or Sissoko (the spellings vary). Mory Kanté, who comes from Guinea ("Yeké Yeké"), Toumani Diabaté (outstanding kora player), Habib Koité, Bassekou Koyaté (BBC Award for World Music) or Kandia Koyaté (one of the in Mali more often than griottes to be found in neighboring countries). Salif Keita, who is also very successful from Mali - you can tell from the name - does not come from a Griot clan.