African American Griots
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Contributed by: Rosemary Mullally

West African Griots are historians, storytellers, traditional praise singers and musicians.  Their roles are hereditary and their surnames identify them as Griots.  For example, Toumani Diabate of Mali comes from 70 generations of Griots.  His father, Sidiki Diabate was considered the “King of the Kora” in Guinea, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali and The Gambia.  When he died, memorials were held in each of these countries, attended by foreign diplomats, government officials and musicians.  The most famous Griot in each of these countries was chosen to preside over the memorials and to celebrate the life of Sidiki Diabate by “singing his praises” and recounting his life story.

Malian Griots, both women and men, are always present at the social rites; birth, marriage and death.   Many Griots are “family Griots” and have been associated with a single family for generations.  These Griots are the repositories of the family’s genealogy and history.  During a marriage ceremony, it is not unusual for the family Griot to recount the story of an ancestor’s marriage that occurred centuries ago; detailing gifts given, attendants and the beauty of the bride.

In a given community, a Griot who attends a social occasion usually knows everyone and their families.  To honor a guest or host, the Griot will recount a story about their family and/or praise the person’s business acumen, number of children, honesty and generosity.  This praise singing is usually accompanied by the traditional music of the djembe, balafon and kora.  During the event,  in acknowledgment of the Griot’s talent and praises, cash gifts are given, the size of the gift dependent upon the renown of the Griot and the affluence of the host and guests.  Competitions in gift giving frequently occur, adding to the reputation of the most generous giver and occasioning louder and longer praises from the Griot.

As an African American living in a country and a society of Africans, I can’t help but feel proud, yet saddened.  Proud that not every part of our African culture was erased by our enforced journey into slavery, yet saddened that so much of our history and knowledge is lost.  African American Griots do exist in the form of our historians, writers, actors, musicians, parents, grandparents and our selves.  We sing the praises of our ancestors, we tell their stories, we give them their rightful place in history and we are the keepers of their memories.

As we research our families, let us become a part of the gift giving competition, bestowing our gifts of knowledge upon our fellow Griots, sharing information and resources, praising each other’s successes.  May our loud and long praises echo down the centuries, from generation to generation, never ending. 

Rosemary Mullally

American Grio

Bamako , Mali

January 2005