Djembe and Mande Music
(last revision 08/22/2000)

In recent years one of the most exiting developments in French Studies has been the growing interest in the Francophone world that exists outside the borders of France. French departments are responding to this interest by adding Francophone topics to existing courses and by creating new courses in Francophone studies.  The challenge for teachers is to find compelling yet informative ways to introduce these topics in the classroom. Within this broader context of Francophone studies, the French-speaking nations of Africa presents a particular interest due to its cultural vitality and diversity. The present paper will suggest that one way to introduce Francophone Africa to students is through its music, especially that of the West African griots. It will focus on the griots of the Mande cultures (The Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, and Ivory Coast),  their social roles both in traditional society, their adapation to the modern world, the instruments they play and their unique style of singing.


 A good way to begin is by pointing out to students that French is spoken is regions within Africa that were once colonies of France and that these Francophone countries of Africa are multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic nations: French language and culture is one ingredient (though an important one) in a rich linguistic and cultural mix.  It is often the case that French is the language of instruction in schools, the language spoken by politicians and government agents and it is the language used to communicate with the outside world. However, in the streets and in the home, people speak Banama, Maninka, Woloof or a variety of other African languages.  Moreover, each nation is home to several different linguistic groups and quite often the speakers of a given language are split up among two or more different nations.  For instance, speakers of the Mande languages 1  are distributed among the present nations of Guinea, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

 The term “griot” (and its feminine form “griotte”) are derived from the French; the origin of this term is hotly contested with no single version obtaining a consensus; in the Mande languages the term is “jali” or “djeli”.  The areas inhabited by the Mande peoples constitutes the heart of the griot region but this region streches north into Mauritania and Niger and south into Ghana and Nigeria and includes a large number of different ethnic groups. 2 In his landmark work Griots and griottes, 3  Hale uses the term “wordsmith” to describe griots for two reasons. The first is that they are distinguished by their ability to use words in a variety of socially important ways and the second is that, within the social structure of Mande culture, they belong to the general group of artisans (nyamakalaw), such as blacksmiths, potters, weavers and leather workers.  Moreover, the griot tradition has a hereditary component in that only members of certain families can become griots and the knowledge and skills that griots possess are passed on only within these families (Diabaté, Kouyaté, Sissoko). Finally, within the traditional social structure, griots could only marry other griots and, although, this principle of endogamy is not as strict as it once was, griots still tend to marry among themselves.

For a literary illustration of these themes, one can turn to a passage from D.T. Niane’s , “Soundjata ou l’epopée mandingue”. Niane is a Guinean historian who has transcribed and translated the story of Sunjata, the founder of the Mali empire, as told by a griot,  Mamadou Kouyaté.

"Je suis griot. C’est moi Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, fils de Bintou Kouyaté et de Djeli Kedian Kouyaté, maître dans l’art de parler. Depuis des temps immémorieaux les Kouyaté sont au service des princes Kéita du Manding; nous sommes les sacs à paroles, nous  sommes les sacs qui referment des secrets plusieurs fois séculaires. L’Art de parler n’a pas de secret pour nous; sans nous les noms des rois tomberaient dans l’oubli, nous sommes la mémoire des hommes; par la parole nous donnons vie aux faits et gestes des rois devant les jeunes générations. (I am a griot. I am Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, son of Bintou Kouyaté et Djeli Kedian Kouyaté, master of the Art of speaking. From times immemorial, the Kouyatés have worked in the service of the Kéita prices of Manden, we are containers of words, we are containers that hold secrets that are several times secular. The Art of speaking has no secrets for us, without us the names of kings would fall into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; though speech we give life to the deeds and exploits of kings for the new generations. (my translation)" 4

 This passage is a succint summary of  several important characteristics of griots:  their specialization in the verbal arts, the secret nature of their knowledge, their role as historians for the Mande peoples, the heritary transmission of their art.

 Let us now take a closer look at the roles griots assume in Mande society. Their most familar roles are as musicians and orals historians, but their actual roles are much more varied. Hale summarizes the functions of griots in the following terms: "recounting history,  providing advice, serving as spokesperson, representing a ruler as a diplomat, mediating conflicts, interpreting the words of others into different languages, playing music, composing songs and tunes, teaching students, exhorting participants in wars and sports, reporting news, overseeing, witnessing or contributing to important life ceremonies, and praise-singing." 5

The power of griots to use words is a common feature of most of these roles. Another important charactistic is the notion of mediation: as oral historians griots mediate between the past and the present, as teachers they mediate between learners and the tradition, as interpreters they mediate between different languages, as diplomats, they mediate between leaders. When we consider this broad range of functions,  we can conclude that griots play an indispensable role in maintaining the social coherance of their communities.

 Griots have a long history in West Africa.  When Ibu Battuta, a North African chronicler who traveled throughout the Muslim world, arrived in the court of the Mali empire in the 14th century, he encountered griots and commented on their importance.  Hale argues 6 that the griot tradition has been in existence long before that and perhaps dates back  as far as two thousand years ago.  Despite its long history, it should be noted that political and social changes have modified this tradition somewhat. Traditionally, griots were at the service of a particular patron or family. The period of  colonization, however, undermined the social standing of their traditional patrons and has forced griots to seek out other sources of income.  While still carrying out traditional functions such as performing at weddings, griots also make recordings and have embarked on international tours, which have created new audiences for their art. Guardians of the past, griots nonetheless live in the present and  have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to change.


 Turning now to some of the characteristics of griot music, it is fair to say that when most Americans think of African music, drums immediately come to mind.  While drums do play an important role in the various musical traditions throughout Africa, one should be aware that many other instruments are also played. Griot music illustrates this point quite nicely: the three primary instruments played by Mande griots are the kora, the balafon, the ngoni  and more recently the guitar. The kora is a 21-string harp, the balafon is a xylophone with wooden keys and the ngoni is a small luth that has three or four strings. These instruments were traditionally played by griot men; women would play the karinya (a type of bell). Another important point concerns the geographic distribution of these instruments: whereas the kora is played primarily by the Mande peoples, differents forms of the balafon and the ngoni are found in other regions of Africa.  Griots do sometimes play a bass drum called the dunun and small talking drums, they generally do not play the dejmbe 7, the most popular drum in the region, which is linked to the blacksmith class.

Mande griot music is noticably distinct from the music played by the ethnic groups in adjoining areas: whereas the majority of the musical traditions in the region uses a five-note pentatonic scale, griot Mande music uses a seven-note heptatonic scale which also differs  from the heptatonic scales used in Western music. Thus the rather unique scale used by griots gives their music a very distinct sound, one that subjectively can evoke certain musics from the Far East. Griot songs often depart as well as from the call and response pattern that is so prevalent in African music. Songs usually begin and end with the basic melody being sung by the chorus; during the middle part, the lead singer generally launches into extended improvisation. The song pattern of griot music is, thus, quite similar to the head-solos-back to the head pattern found in jazz.. This pattern allows griots singers to showcase their remarkable virtuosity.  In their improvisations, griots draw on the genealogies, praise for people past or present and the history of the Mande people.


I would like to conclude this introduction to griot music by listing some resources relating to griot music and the griot tradition:

Listening guide to Griot Music
Toumani Diabaté "Djelika" [Hannibal HNCD 1380] (Mali)
This is a great place to begin exploring griot music: the music is wonderful and I have found that open-minded listeners, who are not familar with griot music, usually like it immediately. Toumani Diabaté  ia a young kora master and is accompanied by Keletigui Diabaté on balafon and Basekou Kouyaté on ngoni. This is an instrumental CD, so Toumani, Keletigui and Basekou all have ample opportunity to demonstrate the griot art of improvised embellishment of a basic melody. It is a also a perfect way to illustrate the three main griot instruments.

Ami Koita "Songs of Praise"  [Stern's Africa, STCD 1039] (Mali) This is an example of a griot recording that blends modern and traditional instruments. Ami Koita is one of Mali’s most prominent divas. Of special note is her virtuoso rendition of "Lamban", the traditional griot classic. "Nakan", "Allah Noh" and "Sanou Djoube" are also stellar performances.

Dembo Konte, Kausu Kuyateh and Mawdo Suso "Jaliology"  [Xenophile XENO 4036) (The Gambia, Senegal)
On "Jaliology" the kora duo Dembo Konte (The Gambia) and Kausu Kuyateh (Casamance, Senegal) are joined by Mawdo Suso (The Gambia) on balafon to form an all-star ensemble. This is essentially instrumental music with occasional rootsy singing. All three are excellent players, but Kausu Kuyateh stands out with his cascading runs and crystalline tone.

"Ana Be Kelen: Griot Music from Mali" [Pan Records; PAN2015CD] (Mali)
 Recorded in Kela, Mali, the celebrated griot village, this is an excellent field recording, complete with the sound of crickets and an occasional rooster. Two ngonis  provide instrumental accompaniment (although two songs add a jembe) for Bintan Kouyaté and Lanfia Diabaté who contribute powerful singing. On "Ana Be Kelen" the griots of Kela perform a fine selection of songs; especially noteworthy are "Sunjata Fasa" and "Jaliya", two classics of the Mande griot repertoire.

Kassé Mady Diabaté "Kela Tradition" [Stern's Africa, STCD 1034)(Mali)
This is another recording with modern instrumentation. Kassé Mady is from the village of Kela (see previous CD) and there, surrounded by accomplished griots, his musical gifts stood out from an early age. He has beautiful voice, a broad emotive range and amazing improvisational skills. The songs on this CD average 8+ minutes in length and on each track Kassé Mady engages in extensive improvisation which require serious concentration of the part of the listener. This effort is, however, amply rewarded.

Kassé Mady Diabaté "Live Concerts" [TF1 (Video)] (Mali)
Backed by kora, balafon, ngoni, djembe and two chorus singers, Kassé Mady Diabaté performs for a French audience. This is another great introduction to griot music. The video and audio are very good and it's hard to watch the joy on the musicians' faces and not be moved. Kassé Mady and his ensemble deliver stellar performances of "Lamban Djoro", "Koulandjan" and "Tessiry Magan".

Adama Diabaté "Jako Bayo" [Stern's Africa, STCD 1062]  (Mali)
This CD is a great place to begin exploring Mande griot music. Adama is an excellent singer, but she is probably a bit more accessible than say Ami Koita or Kassy Mady Diabaté, because her improvisations are more restrained and she stays a bit closer to the melody. The arrangements are wonderful, adding some bass, electric guitar and keyboards, while maintaining a strong traditional sound. Of special interest are "Dunwolo Lalou", and "Sabafolo". This is a thoroughly enjoyable CD.

Jali Musa Jawara "Yasimika" [Hannibal, HNCD 1355] (Guinea)
Jali Musa Jawara plays kora and sings; he is accompaned by balafon, acoustic guitar and a wonderful female chorus (Janka Jobateh, Fanta Kuyateh and Jeni Doumbia). "Yasimika" is an excellent illustration of the Guinean griot tradition which tends to be a bit more sprightly and less sober than the Malian tradition. The songs are long and leisurely with extended balafon and kora breaks. "Haidara" is a gem.

Various Artists “Mandinka and Fulani music of The Gambia” (Axiom 314-510 148-)
This recording contains several griot songs that present the basic melody without improvisation. It also illustrates the difference between Mande (Mandinka) griot music and the music of one the neighboring peoples, the Fulani. Of special interest is the version of “Lamban” (also know as “Jaliya”) , the song griots sing to honor their tradition.

Selected bibliography
Camara,  Sory. 1992. Gens de la parole: Essai sur la condition et le rôle des griots dans la société malinké. Paris: Karthala.
Hale, Thomas A. 1998. Giots and Griottes.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Laye,  Camara. 1978. Le Maitre de la parole. Paris:  Plon.
Niane, Djibril Tamsir. 1960. Soundjata ou l’épopée mandingue. Paris and Dakar: Présence Africaine.

1) Bamana, Jula, Maninka and Mandinka are the major Mande languages
2) For a map of  the griot region see Hale, 1998, p. 11 or
3) Hale, 1998.
4) Niane, 1960, 9.
5) Hale, 1998,  p.19.
6) Hale, 1998,  p 318.
7) A notable exception is Adama Dramé from Burkina Faso. For a discussion of this point, see

Thomas C. Daddesio
Department of Modern Languages and Cultures
Slippery Rock University of Pennslvania
Slippery Rock, PA 16057

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