Senegalese Wolof griot, 1890
A Hausa Griot performs at Diffa, Niger, playing a Komsa (Xalam).

A griot (play /ˈɡri./; French pronunciation: [ɡʁi.o]) or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African storyteller. The griot delivers history as a poet, praise singer, and wandering musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition. As such, they are sometimes also called bards. According to Paul Oliver in his book Savannah Syncopators, "Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable." Although they are popularly known as 'praise singers', griots may also use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.

Griots today live in many parts of West Africa, including Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka, Malinké, Bambara, etc.), Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs and many other smaller groups. The word may derive from the French transliteration "guiriot" of the Portuguese word "criado," or masculine singular term for "servant."

In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: jeli in northern Mande areas, jali in southern Mande areas, guewel in Wolof, gawlo in Pulaar (Fula). Griots form an endogamous caste, meaning that most of them only marry fellow griots and that those who are not griots do not normally perform the same functions that they perform.


Terms "griot" and "jali"

The Manding term jeliya (meaning "musicianhood") is sometimes used for the knowledge of griots, indicating the hereditary nature of the class. Jali comes from the root word jali or djali (blood). This word is also the title given to griots in areas corresponding to the former Mali Empire. Though the usage "griot" is far more common in English, some griot advocates such as Bakari Sumano prefer the term jeli.

In the Mali Empire

Griots of Sambala, king of Médina (Fula people, Mali), 1890.

The Mali Empire (Malinke Empire), at its height in the middle of the 14th century, extended from central Africa (today's Chad and Niger) to West Africa (today's Mali and Senegal). The Empire was founded by Sundjata Keita, whose exploits remain celebrated in Mali even today. In the Epic of Sundjata, King Naré Maghann Konaté offered his son Sundiata a griot, Balla Fasséké, to advise him in his reign. Balla Fasséké is thus considered the first griot and the founder of the Kouyaté line of griots that exists to this day.

Each aristocratic family of griots accompanied a higher-ranked family of warrior-kings or emperors, which they called jatigi. In traditional culture, no griot can be without a jatigi, and no jatigi can be without a griot; the two are inseparable, and worthless without the other. However, the jatigi can accept a "loan" of his griot to another jatigi.

Most villages also had their own griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and hundreds of other things.

In Mande society

In Mande society, the jeli was as a historian, advisor, arbitrator, praise singer (patronage), and storyteller. Essentially, these musicians were walking history books, preserving their ancient stories and traditions through song. Their inherited tradition was passed down through generations. Their name, jeli, means "blood" in Manika language. They were said to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers as music is associated as such. Speech is also said to have power as it can recreate history and relationships.


Bakari Sumano, head of the Association of Bamako Griots in Mali from 1994 to 2003, was an internationally-known advocate for the importance of the griot in West African society.

In popular culture

In the Malian film Guimba the Tyrant directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko, the storytelling is done through the village griot, who also serves to provide comic relief.

In the late novels of the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote takes the form of a praise-song by the Sora, the Griot, Bingo to the president-Dictator of the fictitious République du Golfe. His final novel Allah is not Obliged also prominently features a griot character.

There are also references in the Alex Haley's book Roots of a griot who passed his family history through oral tradition. When Haley traces back his history, passing from his previous generation through the slave time, back to Africa, he thought there should be griots telling his history and the history of his ancestor, known in the family as "The African", who was captured in the bushes when he was seeking timber to make a talking drum. When he arrived in Africa to do research for his book, he believed he had actually found griots telling his history. Through them he learned the ancestor's identity, Kunta Kinte. Since he had first heard the story from his grandmother and later refreshed by his older cousin, he believed that they were griots in their own way until someone put the story to writing. He later learned that his cousin had died within the hour of his arrival at the village.

In fact, however, this story illustrates the problems and complexities of oral tradition, especially when approached without expert knowledge. In 1981, it was shown (Wright, 1981) that the story of Kunta Kinte had been manufactured by a well-wisher. Following the publication of Roots, the story was being told in multiple versions with differing embellishments, having entered the stock of general stories.

In Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, the protagonist Avatara (Avey) might take on some of the characteristics of a griot, especially in her commitment to passing on to her grandchildren her aunt's oral story of the Ibos at the Landing, in which Africans brought to the U.S. Sea Islands to be slaves promptly turned around and walked back to Africa over the water.

Griot is the name of an instrumental track on Jon Hassell and Brian Eno's ambient music album Possible Musics.

Innercity Griots is the second album by Los Angeles Hip Hop group Freestyle Fellowship, released in 1993 through 4th & B'way Records. The group, consisting of four emcees: Aceyalone, P.E.A.C.E., Mikah 9 and Self Jupiter, received worldwide acclaim with their second project. Released during the prominent gangsta era of West Coast hip hop, Innercity Griots, along with albums like The Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde and Del tha Funkee Homosapien's I Wish My Brother George Was Here, established an acclaimed era of alternative hip hop in California.

Malian novelist Massa Makan Diabaté was both a descendant and critic of the griot tradition. Though Diabaté argued on the one hand that griots "no longer exist" in the classic sense,[1] he also saw this tradition as one that could be salvaged through written literature. His fiction and plays blend traditional Mandinka storytelling and idiom with Western literary forms.

Griot, meaning urban storyteller and teacher of history, is referenced by Professor A.L.I. in the first line of his 2010 single 'Guantanamo'.[2]

Notable griot artists and groups

Mandinka Griot Al-Haji Papa Susso performing songs from the oral tradition of the Gambia on the kora
This ancient Baobab tree in the Réserve de Bandia, Sénégal, forms a living mausoleum for the remains of famed local Griots.

See also

Sura Susso


  1. ^ Diabaté, Massa Makan. L'assemblée des djinns. Paris: éditions Présence Africaine, 1985. p.62-63.
  2. ^ [1]


  • Charry, Eric S. (2000). Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Includes audio CD. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hale, Thomas A. (1998). Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press
  • Hoffman, Barbara G. (2001). Griots at War: Conflict, Conciliation and Caste in Mande. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press
  • Suso, Foday Musa, Philip Glass, Pharoah Sanders, Matthew Kopka, Iris Brooks. (1996). Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond. Ellipsis Arts.
  • Wright, Donald R. (1981). "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: on the perils of relying on encyclopoaedic informants." History in Africa, vol. VIII.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Griot — en traje de fiesta (1890). Un griot o jeli (djeli o djéli en francés) es un narrador de historias de África Occidental. El griot cuenta la Historia de la forma que lo haría un poeta, un cantante de alabanzas o un músico vagabundo. Un griot es un… …   Wikipedia Español

  • Griot — (1910) mit einer Zupflaute vom Typ Ngoni Griot [ɡʀiˈo] (französisch), bezeichnet in Teilen Westafrikas einen berufsmäßigen Sänger, Dichter und Instrumentalisten, der in einer bestimmten Form des Gesangs epische Texte als Preissänger,… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • griot — griot, griotte [ grijo, grijɔt ] n. • v. 1680; guiriot 1637; p. ê. port. criado ♦ En Afrique, Membre de la caste de poètes musiciens, dépositaires de la tradition orale. « Les griots du Roi m ont chanté la légende véridique de ma race aux sons… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • griot — 1. (gri o) s. m. Synonyme de recoupe du blé. Les boulangers fournissent aux amidonniers les griots et les recoupettes qu ils peuvent employer sur le champ, Dict. des arts et mét. Amidonnier. ÉTYMOLOGIE    Même racine que gruau. griot 2. (gri o)… …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • griot — griót s. m. Trimis de siveco, 10.08.2004. Sursa: Dicţionar ortografic  griót s. m. poet–cântãreţ ambulant în Africa occidentalã, cãruia i se atribuie adesea puteri supranaturale. (din fr. griot) Trimis de blaurb, 22.03.2006. Sursa: MDN …   Dicționar Român

  • Griot —   [gri oː, französisch] der, s/ s, im nordwestlichen Schwarzafrika und bei den Tuareg eine Person, die als Sänger und Spaßmacher sowie als Hüter und Rezitator der Oralliteratur auftritt. Die Griots bilden eine endogame Kaste; in den stark… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • griot — 1820, from Fr. griot (17c.), of unknown origin …   Etymology dictionary

  • griot — maigriot …   Dictionnaire des rimes

  • Griot — Porté dans la Loire, la Saône et Loire et la Haute Savoie, devrait être une variante de Grillot (voir ce nom). Un rapport avec la cerise griotte est également envisageable …   Noms de famille

  • griot — [grē′ō] n. a traditional, W African musician or storyteller who recounts the oral history of a village, family, etc …   English World dictionary

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