Most Western historians have traditionally given preference to written records, it is undeniable that oral traditions are very rich with data regarding the people and their cultural heritage. It is considered to be the purest demonstration and manifestation of a particular socio-cultural legacy reflecting the early stages in the way of life, customs and traditions of the native people when there are still very little or almost no other cultural influences are present. Oral traditions are also considered as great and legitimate literary constructions. The old oral epic African tale of Sundiata was passed on from generation to generation through oral storytelling and recounting of the feats, exploits, triumphs and life of the great Mali king, Sundiata. The tales recounted by the traditional African storyteller and chronicler, called griot usually spans from the time of Sundiata’s childhood — his upbringing, struggles, betrayals and triumphs up to his reign as king of Mali including the circumstances and background of his birth. Although the story spun around the life of one heroic character, Sundiata — his childhood, his rise to becoming a great leader, his years in exile, and his battles with Soumaoro and other enemies who cross his path, the epic also touches on and talks about many things regarding the life and tradition of the Western African people. It opens certain windows in the past which give the readers an unbiased account of how people live during those times, what were the things they held valuable and what were the courses of actions they followed and the consequences of these in the present. This particular Mali epic plays heavily on themes such as the occult, prophecy, and epic adventure.
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One noticeable facet of life presented in the tale is the relationship between and among the different caste system in the society. Readers were made aware of the presence of the rulers and their needs of other members of the society in order to function and reign. Aside from the story of Sundiata, the epic also chronicles the importance of the griots, in the history of these people. These particular members of a western African society are professional historians who serve a ruler in much the same way that modern rulers are served by written constitutions, legal staff, and archival staffs (McKissack).
The griots are extremely important to the Mali society above almost everyone else for they are the public records of the noble families lineages as well the great deeds committed by members within those families (McKissack) among other things including the role of orators who relay the words of the kings to the rest of the population; a role which is as important and imperative as that of the ancestors who serve as intermediaries between Faro (God) and living humans. The position of a griot is something that has been passed on from father to son and mother to daughter.
Even though the griots place in the society is relegated in the low caste, they have a moving and pivotal (not to mention influential) role in the Mali society. They hold a position of power, one of which that is crucial in motivating an entire population to a coordinated effort. It seems that the relationship of griots and the rulers is almost equal (the king always listens to his griot); it is a case of the griot has the power to speak, and the ruler has the power to act (based on what the griot says).
The importance and value of a griot in the kingdom is clearly emphasized in these particular lines from Sundiata: Since time immemorial the Kouyates have been in the service of the Keita princes of Mali; we are vessels of speech, we are the repositories which harbour secrets many centuries old I will give you my fathers words just as I received them; royal griots do not know what lying is (1).
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A griots life and training is very strict exacting and rigorous. They are taught by their elders (the father, normally) and are trained over many years to learn the enormous quantity of traditional songs and to master the melodies and rhythms. A griot is not only required to sing several generations worth of a tribe’s or family’s history but also has to be completely familiar with the songs of ritual necessary to summon spirits and gain the sympathy of ancestors. The people of Mali put a very significant and vital merit on the role of the griot for they believe that every king wants to have a singer to perpetuate his memory, for it is the griot who rescues the memories of kings from oblivion, as men have short memories (41).
The value placed on the royal but lowly griot is actually almost tantamount to the significance and status they give on their rulers, as one line from Sundiata seems to imply: but whoever knows the history of a country can read its future (41) as well. And who knows about the past and their intricacies but the griots who relay them to their kings. The griots role in his society is massive yet he is accorded very little merit and appreciation for it. For centuries, they have kept alive tales of family and village history. They are an integral part of the culture of West Africa and the strongest link to centuries of history. Works Cited Niane D.T. “Sundiata: an epic of old Mali”.
G.D. Pickett (trans).
Harlow: Longmans, 1994 (c 1965).
McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. Sagebrush: 1995..