LISTEN: (Look at "Listen tracks")
Legends of Benin is a fast train, an electric shock, a storm impossible to avoid and from which it is hopeless to run away from.
"Antoine Dougbé's father was a Vodun priest, powerful and feared for decades. Antoine learned from him all the ritual Vodun secrets, of which he is adept and has used those powers in many occasions. If he liked you he would do his best to guarantee protection. But if he didn't like you it was a serious problem. He used to be called the Devils Prime Minister. Most of the members of my band (TP Orchestre Polyrythmo) were worried, they were afraid they would not play as Dougbé wanted. You can imagine how intense our recording sessions were!”(Melome Clement)
Benin - a small ex French colony, stretched together with Togo, between Nigeria and Ghana - is maybe the African country where Vodun, the spirituality and the traditional Yoruba magic, is mostly diffused and where it has survived the influence of the Christian missionaries and of the Muslims. The magic of this beautiful collection, put together by Samy Ben Rejeb, for his Analog Africa, comes from having re-given life to a music which was buried, just like the Vodun priests who evoked Egungun, the ancestors' dead spirits who appeared wearing their masks.
It was in 1972 when I returned to Cotonou, to meet the musicians of the Sunny Blacks Band, whom had just changed name into Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. I was at the top of my carrier and really had the gift of writing music and telling stories, coming naturally from the inside. You can not imagine the quantity of songs I have written! So many that the producers with whom I worked had not enough money to pay for all of them. Once the Discafric paid for one song that then later became a success; an electric torch."(Honoré Avolonto)
During the seventies the African discography industry had developed incredibly. Hundreds - or maybe thousands - of small autoctone labels produced an endless number of long and extended playings, not to talk about the singles supported by the local branches of the big European discography majors. Cities like Abidjan in Cote D'Ivoire and Lagos in Nigeria but also Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Addis Abeba and many others, were major centres of production where artists from the whole continent would go to record their music. Also the local radios were expanding and they joined the national radios so that the enormous quantity of music created from the thousand African bands of this period, leaving a recorded footprint on vinyl or tape, was really embarrassing. Embarrassing, unknown for most, unexplored and also nowhere to be found music. because the majority of this music never reached Europe and because Africans are not used to set up and manage archives. It would be nice that those "repositories" could become for Africa an important resource just as much as petrol, gold or rare metals!
This is what happens today; deejays and collectors like Samy Ben Rejeb, whose main interest for Zimbabwean music allowed him to create the Analog Africa, during the course of his explorations, he discovers musical mines full of treasures in a small country like Benin, and has revised his original project. Legends of Benin is the fifth album from Analog Africa and the third dedicated to rare material coming from Benin and without doubt also the most exciting. From the cover notes one can understand the reason: the album gets better while the collection of Samy and his knowledge of the local musical scene increase.
Legends of Benin include songs of four big heroes who were unknown to the Benin musical history, the most famous of them is Gnonnas Pedro who unfortunately went missing in 2004. The national salsero is also famous for his presence in the salsa group of Africando created in 1990 by Ibrahim Sylla. Unfortunately Africa - we must admit - has never produced Caribbean music that could compete with the original one and this also applies for salsa and reggae. The arrival of funk Pedro transformed music, creating a sort of afrofunk-adbaja of great intensity and impact.
Close to Gnonnas Pedro we find the magic energy of Antoine Dougbé, the king of Cavacha, the prolific eclectics of Honoré Avolonto and the explosive vitality of El Rego, who we have met in a previous compilation called African Scream Contest.
"A musician has to consume, digest and understand music. He has to study. Unfortunately today in Africa the music situation is disastrous. Nothing happens. In Benin there are many old musicians, including myself, who would be ready to offer services, to teach young people but the government is not interested. This is why we are pestered by horrible rap, a genre that has nothing to do with the Beninese traditions. The young Beninese are born with a particular ear for music, this is why our country is full of talents". (El Rego)
Legends of Benin is music to listen to and to dance to and it never shows a second of defaliance. It goes from brutal funk to Afro beat to ska to reggae to pachanka without revealing its side. In almost half of the songs we find the imposed rhythm machine of the Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, one of the most long-lasting and eclectic orchestra of all west Africa, that survives, and that in the forthcoming weeks will be on tour in Europe. The rest is acid guitars, the articulated organs and antiphonal songs which when not Yoruba strongly remind us of them.
Legends of Benin is one of the most beautiful African albums released in 2009, full of energy and very original. It is music that does not perceive the existence of borders and that doesn't age and that still today makes people dance. Labels like Analog Africa and Soundway Records deserve all our enthusiasm and support, because it is thanks to their work that we can discover the marvellous history that could hardly repeat itself. But the future is development and in the name of Africa we do not want to loose hope.
1. Dadje Von O Von Non - Gnonnas Pedro
5. Tin Lin Non - Honoré Avolonto
8. Nou Akuenon Hwlin Me Sin Koussio - Antoine Dougbé
Title: Legends of Benin
Label: Analog Africa
1. Dadje Von O Von Non - Gnonnas Pedro & His Dadjes Band
2. Feeling You Got - El Rego et Ses Commandos
3. Honton Soukpo Gnon - Antoine Dougbé
4. E Nan Mian Nuku - El Rego et Ses Commandos
5. Tin Lin Non - Honoré Avolonto & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo
6. Okpo Videa Bassouo - Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Panchos
7. Ya Mi Ton Gbo - Antoine Dougbe & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo
8. Nou Akuenon Hwlin Me Sin Koussio - Antoine Dougbé
9. Djobime - El Rego et Ses Commandos
10. Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu - Honoré Avolonto
11. Vimado Wingnan - El Rego et Ses Commandos
12. Dou Dagbé Wé - Honoré Avolonto & Black Santiago
13. Kovito Gbe De Towe - Antoine Dougbé
14. La Musica en Verité - Gnonnas Pedro & His Dadjes Band
Legends of Benin
Mamadou Barry - Niyo
Orquestra Popular da Bomba do Hemeterio
Gangbe Brass Band
Griot master of the word
31 August 2009
Posted by GM
25 August 2009
LISTEN: (Look at "Listen Tracks")
During the sixties and seventies the Guinean orchestras, essential for Sekou Toure for the Authenticité project, were the most precious jewels on the African music scene. Keletigui Traore and his Tambourinis, Balla Onivogui and his Balladins, and – mostly - Bembeya Jazz became in the whole continent true icons of the new African culture, just when the majority of the African countries, having obtained independence, were busy reconstructing an identity proud of their roots.
In 1969 a group of young musicians who were around 20 years of age, set up in Conakry a new orchestra, the Kaloum Star. Within the group there was Mamadou Barry on the saxophone and Mamadou Camara on guitar.
Mamadou Barry was born in 1947 in Kindia, a city close to the border with Sierra Leone. He was from the Peul ethnic, he was named “maitre Barry”, because he had a diploma as teacher in school and he dedicated himself to music against his mothers' will. His father instead was also a musician and played the squeeze box and the drums in the pre-colonial orchestra: Le Pavilion Bleu from Kindia.
Running after his childish passion young Barry joined the Ballets de Conakry as percussionist. "Being a djembe player in a traditional ballet has strongly influenced my music. When I play the first thing I hear is the rhythm of percussions inside, and in my musical arrangements I always try to reserve a solo for the percussionists". Only later he learned to play the saxophone, taking lessons from the Caribbean teacher Honoré Coppet, living in Conarky, and being inspired by Momo Wandel Soumah. Barry considered Momo the most creative African musician.
While Balla, Keletigui and Bembeya had the responsibility over their shoulders to represent the identity and the cultural Guinean roots, the young musicians of the Kaloum Star were free to experiment. "We were young and we played young music, very cool, open to all sorts of influences, mainly to Cuban music. At that time Guinean music was the main light in the African music scene. All the stars today from Salif to Manu admit the predominance in this period of bands like Bembeya and Keletigui. Naturally I was influenced by them.”
Kaloum Star had a big success and they played not only in Guinea but also in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Mali. They played with stars like Doc Albert, Aicha Kone and Richard Egues, flutist of the Habanero sextet, from who Barry learned how to play the flute. "None the less our success remained the young band of Conakry. We would play every week at the train station buffet. When the eighties arrived the other orchestras broke up but we continued playing. Without denying our roots we opened up to jazz music, to blues, to jazz-rock convinced that we had to continue maintaining the spirits young."
Maybe for ethnic reasons - they were not Malinke, but Susu and Peul - as a matter of fact Kaloum Star recorded for Syliphone only three singles and some participation to some collections like the historical one Discotheque Series. Their first and only album was Felenko, recorded in France in 1997. Once Momo Wandel passed away and more recently Keletigue Traore, Mamadou Barry remains the living veteran on the Guinean saxophone. This year after almost 50 years of carrier, maitre Barry publishes Niyo, first album under his name.
Close to maitre Barry we find the guitar player Mamadou Camara, his eternal companion Djessu Mory Kante and Yaya Diallo on guitar, Papa Kouyate on percussions, Myriam Makeba and other aged Guinean musicians into an ensemble enriched with traditional sound of the balafon, the kora and the Peul flute.
Both the riffs and the solos of Mamadou Barry’s flute and saxophone are elegant and gentle, whether they play palm-wine melodies from the old times gone by or whether they fly into afro beat of Niyo or of Sedy or whether they accompany the ancient rhythms of the forest or whether they follow the footsteps of Momo Wandel like in the remake of Take Five of Brubeck played in four or in six. Five instrumental songs – “Musique sans parole” was the title of the great Syliphone album - and four sung, the pearls of the album. Four different voices, three great Guinean singers with an original voice; Seny Mallomou, Missia Sara and Sina Tolno, extraordinary soul singer who’s not even twenty and lastly the kora player Kelontan Cissokho, who plays and sings in the beautiful song Nené.
Niyo is open music, solar and brave but does not forget the sound of the historical orchestras. It is the ultimate confirmation that the artist during the Guinean musical golden period - like the most recent works of Momo Wandel or Sekou Bembeya - had absorbed the atmosphere of that extraordinary period; love and vitality which was difficult to find within the new generation's music, now deprived of hope. Niyo is a natural evolution of the Syliphone productions which documented music in constant movement. We suggest this as the tropical groove of Mamadou Barry is music that warms up the heart.
1. Mamadou Barry - Sodia (vcl: Seny Malomou)
2. Mamadou Barry - Bike Magnin (vcl: Missia Saran)
3. Kaloum Star - Be Dyanamo (from Felenko, 1997)
4. Kaloum Star - Maliba (from Discotheque 74, 1974)
Mamadou Barry & Sia Tolno - Sumbouya
Author: Mamadou Barry
Label: Marabi / World Village
3. Africa Five
7. Barry Swing
8. Bike Magnin
20 August 2009
by ROBERTO LYCKE
LISTEN: Bomba do Hemeterio - Gangbe Brass
(Look at "Listen Tracks")
While I keep driving through the endless sugar can plantations I try to concentrate on the real reason of my trip to Recife, the capital of the Pernamubuco and of the Del Frevo State, one of the musical styles born at the beginning of the past century named by "Marcha Nortista or Marcha Pernambucana”.
This kind of march song played by the military bands was generally part of a repertoire that included many other different musical styles, amongst which popular music compositions, classics of Polka and Mazurka, very popular at the time all over Brazil.
Usually during the street parades in the capital these orchestras called Brass-bands would bring together many capoeira dancers who would improvise their steps and dance/fight at the start of the procession attracting the people who would get together in the streets to celebrate.
The capoeira dancers were the favourite goal of the authorities, through those exhibitions they would start unhiding and modifying the Capoeria movements into true dance steps which took the name "Passo". In front of Recife we head immediately towards Olinda, a twin city that is situated on top of a hill and overlooks Recife.
Olinda is very discrete and all in colonial style, it is well kept and has nothing in common with the stress that animates the twin city where the fear of being assaulted by poor desperate people is always present.
Finally, away from the Bahia Axe and from the carioca funk, with ease I manage to set up pleasant and interesting discussions with some boys that were playing music in exchange of some cold bear in the bar beneath the bed & breakfast.
Here the Forro, the Maracatu, the Coco are ancient and traditional, but the music everybody listens to is the Frevo.
-“Aquì è Frevo è Frevo mesmo !!!!”- (Here the Frevo is really Frevo) says a boy to me while he is telling me how much this style/genre is eradicated not only in the spirit of this city but throughout all Brazil, he adds proudly.
For those who have no idea of what Frevo is, I would like to remind you that we are talking of big steel bands that play more or less like the fires’ military bands of the twentieth century; a count that we presume is unable to let loose the enthusiasm of the new MTV-World generations; too greedy of American consumerism dementia (it would be interested to make a research on the non permeability of the Brazilian music compared to some "western" pop).
To further clarify the enthusiasm that pernabucans have for this genre my interlocutor is always more excited while talking about a new orchestra that during the past two years is having a great success amongst the young people.
The name of the orchestra is : Orquestra Popular da Bomba do Hemeterio and takes its name from a community; symbol of the quarter-belonging, that was so called because during the thirties and the forties the only ones to have a pump for water in the area was a guy called Hemeterio, in fact the name Bomba do Hemeterio (la pompa di Hemeterio)
The sound that characterizes the project is an ensemble of traditions and modernity that in the city is sweeping out everybody.
In order to better understand my friend tells me to go in one of those open public rehearsals that during those days, before the carnival, thousands of trembling people are waiting to exhibit in the streets of Recife and Olidna.
Grabbing this opportunity I take the car and drive to Rua da Moeda where the orchestra is playing together with the percussionist; Nanà Vasconcelos and other groups of Maracatu.
The atmosphere is very friendly, at each stride the volume is louder and when we arrive we find an orchestra of about 25/30 people that are shooting rare and powerful sounds accurately.
The impact is really strong, the tuba bass creates literally air movements that one can feel on the skin, while the surdo shake our bodies starting from the fundaments passing though the ankles to arrive in the stomach.
Conducted by a Foro Mater, which I only later discovered, the orchestra presented a traditional repertoire spacing from some Mambo of Benny More to Mangue Beat of the late lamented Chico Science, from the Swing to Maracatu, from Xaxado to Ciranda, from Cavalho Marino to Fox Trot passing through the standard re-editions of the famous "Vassourinhas", "Cabelo de Fogo" and "Elefante".
Fast changes of super accelerated beats, sonar hilarious spots, gags between the orchestra leader and the audience enrich the orchestra's precision.
At the end of the concert I speak with some of the components of the orchestra who proudly precise that the OPBH project is not only a show but that the orchestra is only one of the various vivacious expressions of the area named "Agua Fria" which is located in the north of Recife.
While the conversation continues, the OPBH appears to be the main expression of what is included in the wide project within which other than a one side project together with Dj Dolores, there is also space for a music school called Escola Comunitária de Música Zé Amâncio do Coco that is also a place where children with educational and everyday life problems find shelter.
Immediately I buy the CD (5 euro) and I return to the area of my bed and breakfast. While I drive, I insert the Cd that sets off with “Frevando em Paris” a song that immediately clarifies the sound of the orchestra. A "battery" that dictates beats and breaks on a typical Frevo structure, it functions as a rhythmic mat to a wind section that sometimes seems to play like Punk. The riffs are similar to capoeria; sharp as blades they cut through space and the styles mix up with each other.
The second song “Luanda d’agora” is already what we can define a "neofrevo" song where funky improvisation leaves space to an unexpected Fox-Trot beat over which the banjo is full of thirties Chicago style, it joyfully brings us into another space-time dimension.
It is the triumph of the new pernambucan generation, who after the end of Chico Science (who still today is considered a sort of electric saint) and of hi Mangue-beat were waiting to show the rest of the country that is looking at them as an old fashion state, savage and bent on itself from which nothing new can come out.
Today they are the new bishops of the new young local generation, them together with Silverio Pessoa, Otto, Banda Eddie, Isar, la Spok Frevo Orchestra e Antonio Nobrega who transmit that contagious freshness that over here (in US and Europe) is rarely met.
In the meantime the cd keeps playing and my imagination brings me to think how interesting it would be to find the boy who helped me know the orchestra and to have him listen to another project that on the other side of the ocean is bringing forth a similar project: the Gangbe Brass Band.
While I keep day dreaming the cd reaches a song called “Suite America” where reminders of Gershwin mix up to the song that represents the history of Frevo, the ubiquitous “Vassourinhas”. The outcome is incredible, the OPBH is everywhere in New York in Mexico City and when a dragging Coco enters where two seconds before there was a Swing, we return to Olinda to Pitangueira drinking some liquor with home made cacao and singing :
“Segura o coco moçada,
responde o coco moçada !!!”
Jumping from one continent to the other with the same ease with which I manage the CD player, I return to Gangbe Brass Band, nephew of the military brass bands that during the beginning of the century were emerging in the main capitals of West Africa.
The first brass bands were taken to Liberia and Ghana from the Caribbean by the western patrons that during their stay in the colonies loved to have everything without anything missing . . . nothing.
Unconscious of the role represented for the local musicians, those orchestras would assist in the creation of African generations that other than appreciating the musical organization were also astonished by the military uniform and the discipline that were communicated at that time.
The visual impact of those bands in uniform had a big influence on people.
In Ghana for the first time Ragtime, Rumba and Calypos reached the African country transforming and influencing the musical tradition.
The explosive mix came from the fantastic jams that the first local brass bands called "Adaha" loved improvising together with the military bands, giving life to a genre that for decades made the whole African continent dance.
Shortly the musicians learned various instrumental and compositive techniques to then use according to their own sensitivity and insert them in their local cultural context, so this is how the famous orchestras of Cape Coast Sugar Babies, Jazz Kings , Excelsior Orchestra and l’Accra Orchestra appeared.
In the meantime the close Dahomey (actual Benin) after a short period for armed conflicts fell under the French domination. The French tried with all their means to cancel the few cultural traces of those commercial relationships that in the past the King of Daomé held with the Portuguese before and with the Brazilians later.
With the arrival of the French domination also in Benin the common trauma already experienced in other African countries saw their own political borders changed by the new colonial power. In particular who paid most for those politics was the Yoruba community that found itself broken up between Nigeria and Dahomey where in addition to the Edo and the Bini the Yoruba is still one of the most common languages.
Also years after the end of colonialism, Benin, like the majority of the other African countries, is today economically depressed and its land has no more resources.This allowed them to maintain an uncontaminated culture which did not change and was not influenced.
Today with the advent of Satellite TV and the Net the new generations claim their presence or better their existence within the big global village.
The Gangbe Brass Band somehow represents this. After having started playing traditional music at weddings and local festivities, the use of different genres allows the bad to take new directions.
Together with the music of the Brass-bands, Elzo (a sort of local juju), Afro beat and Caribbean rhythms and ritual voodoo songs dominated the strong sound of the band and became part of the band's repertoire.
“Gangbè” in Fon language means metal. In the local culture metal is a mineral related to Voodoo or to the Orisá Nigerian divinities: Ogun, a warrior and master of all the activities related to iron in general.
Having reached their fourth work Gangbe offers another album full of vitality; Assiko. Edited by Belgian Contre-Jour the Cd starts with "Nikki" a song dedicated to the Baatonou a populations originating from the north part of the county, they bravely opposed themselves to the slave business, in this part of the Benin gulf this was so active and ferocious that it was sadly named the "The Slaves Coast".
This topic we will see comes back on other songs of the album like “La porte de non retour” which refers to the monument in Ouidah to memorize millions of Africans deported during the traffic of slaves to the New World.
From this the positive idea, reminding us that through this door passed sufferance and pain, years later would have returned home elaborated and transformed into Jazz and Blues to testimony a culture that, even if brutalized and afar from home, has managed to create new forms of musical expressions that still today simply return to their land of origin.
The sound is cheerful and the captivating rhythms sometimes remind us Art Ensemble of Chicago during their joyful period.
The album runs and reaches “Un ètè a Vodelèè” that immediately brings to my mind rhythm of marchinhas pernambucane or of Carimbò the Parà or Mestre Vieira.
In one second I rebuild and I put all in line: Xaxa with its amazons, Burrinha (a local version of Bumba meu boi from north east) danced in the roads of Port Novo by the Agudas who still today remember the Bahia Fiesta de Nosso Senior do Bomfim.
The last resistance to the unavoidable parallels that I tried to send away from my mind was overwhelmed when an incredible accordion plays, bringing me back to the fair of Caruarù where“Trios de Forrò” sitting at a bar were making the atmosphere joyful.
Assiko finishes with “Mementon” a beautiful vocal song that develops around a typical African structure of “call and response”, a common structure for all the cultures whose roots are African and remind us of songs sang while working.
Certainly, listening and comparing the two works, it is clear that the consonances between the two projects are not based on similar musical choices but the approach chosen is definitely similar.
It is the insatiability of the people that are hungry and want to grow, it is the urgency of letting others know that far from the centre of the Empire the "savage civilizations" are pushing their seducing borders to allow others to listen to their own rhythms, their sounds and their voice.
Sitting on the flight that brings be back to Rome I ask myself if one day . . . somehow . . . . a simple record could allow young boys imagination in Olinda to travel just like I did.
Author: Orchestra Popular da Bomba do Hemeterio
Title: : Jorrando cultura
Label: Produzione indipendente
Listen Tracks in ascolto:
1. Prevando em Paris
2. Luanda D'Agora
3. Suite america
Author: Gangbe Brass Band
Label: Contre Jour
1. La porte de non retour
2. Un été a Vodélée
13 August 2009
"Man is master of the word he keeps inside his stomach but he becomes slave of the word that escapes his lips". (African proverb)
In a society where there is no writing the preservation and transmission of the cultural richness is based mainly on the oral traditional literature which is almost always expressed through lyrics. In particular, in West Africa or in the sub Saharan region, the historical and cultural memory of the community is entrusted to the specialists of spoken word.
The knowledge of traditional history is a structure and identifying factor through which man can recognize himself as belonging to a social-ethnic group, well distinguished from others, or to justify one's position within the same group.
"Master of word" is an honorary title for those who know well the history of its own people. The storyteller, court musician, bard or minstrel who sang for centuries the heroic gestures of Princes and Kings together with the musical accompaniment, are possessors of the art of the word. Rising from their singing about myths, legends, beliefs and knowledge turning them into historical and cultural depositaries of the people they belong to. In the majority of the ethnic West African groups this task is a prerogative of a specific cast and it is the cast of griot, just like the execution of a vocal repertoire and the ownership of musical instruments are specific qualities.
Once upon a time, griots were counsellors of the king and would preserve the "reign's constitution with the only effort of their memory". Every noble family had its own griot, who would register the gestures, and who through divinatory practices was also able to provide advises and hope and to evaluate, for example the risk to go battle against other people. The girot was also the spokes man of the king and spoke to his people and often functioned as intermediary in diplomatic relations with embassies and other kingdoms.
Both men and women can be traditional griot. The knowledge of a griot varies according to the context where he belongs and it stretches from history to cosmogony, to genealogy, to mythology to political history. This wisdom is transmitted from generation to generation within the family.
The Malian historian Amadou Hampáté Bá (1901-1991), belonging to the Fulbe ethnic (Fulani in English, Peul in French and Fula for the Mandingo), divides them in three categories according to their roles:
- The musician griot plays all instruments, often wonderful singer, holder and conveyer of ancient music and at the same time composer;
- The ambassador and courtesan griot, is responsible of entertaining big families, and is close to nobles and royal families, often to a single person;
- The genealogist griot, historian and poet (or all three at the same time) is generally spokesman or traveller, not necessarily tied to a family.
As a matter of fact griot are the living memories of their people, for this as Hampáté Bá sais in a conference held at Unesco during the sixties, in Africa "every griot that dies it is like a library that burns in flames".
The inherited blood and the salt of life: meaning of the word griot.
It appears that griot is an Africanized term of an unknown word to the sub Saharan Africans, maybe coming from an Arab idiom or more realistically of French origin (alteration of guiriot, from rough Portuguese meaning slave, domestic) indicating the musicians cast. In the various African languages the griot is called:
- Djelí (djelimuso if female, plural djelimusolu) within the Maninka (Malinke) in Mali and Guinea, the Bambara (or Bamana) in Mali and within Mandinka in Senegal and Gambia,
- Gewel within Wolof in Senegal,
- Gawlo (plural awlu'be) within the Fula or Fulani or Peul,
- Gesere (plural geserun) or diare (jaare) within the Soninke (Sarakole or Marka) in Mali.
- Jeseré (plural jeserey) within the Songhay based in the region at the border between Mali and Niger.
The term "djeli" comes from a legend that circulates in various similar versions. One of those narrates that two brothers wandering inside the forest ended up loosing themselves. The younger one was forceless and tired and hungry, he then decided to stop and the older brother proceeded alone. The elder pretended to go away, to then return with a peace of fresh meat which he gave to his little brother. They continued their journey. Only when they were close to a village the young brother realized that his leg was bleeding. He then understood how generous he had been and he therefore promised his brother eternal thankfulness and devotion for the blood spilled and named him "djeli" (blood).
The term "djeli" means both blood and griot. In a story from Ivory Coast the griot is rapresented like the slave of God's angel sent to the earth to stop the war. He arrives in front of the chiefs with two cut heads. In other stories is told that when the warriors killed their enemies the griots cut the dead heads, carried on the shoulder and brought to the village as evidence of the heroic deeds of warriors. The title djeli was given because of the blood drain from cut heads on their body.
In an Islamic legend the main protagonist Sourakata, ancestor of all griots, drinks the blood from a wound of Mohammed. The story narrates that the prophet had an infeced leg and the wound was swelling. But the earth was refusing the blood and also the sky, the leaves and the roots of the trees. Everything did not want Mohammed's blood poured. Sourakata then drank the blood and people told him "Sourakata you have part of Mohammed's blood". This is how he was named djeli just like all his descendants.
Other cosmic myths highlight the fact that the griot is generated by blood. In one of them the ancestor of griot that has origin from the sacrificed blood of Faor (in the bambara version) or of Nomino (from the dogon version), descends from the sky holding in his hands the sacrificed skull representing the first drum of the griot.
In Wolof, which is the most spoken language by the Senegalese, griot is guewel that is translated with the expression "to form a circle around someone". The griot is therefore he who speaks and is listened to by the crowd around the penc, the circular area where the communities meet to listen and discuss issues (in case of ceremonies or shows the penc is called geew). The audience does not only listen to the specialist of the epic, but can intervene to dialogue with the griot even provoking or criticizing his version of the facts. He who takes the word within the public, because he believes he can affirm himself to be able to "add his own salt to the cooker". The ability of the "master of word" consists also in being able to use the eloquence to provide smart answers and provoke o the audience.
This verbal war generated by the griots is fun and allows enjoying the allusions to past events or recent events. According to the general opinion a world without a griot would be "tasteless like rice without sauce".
In the classical tradition as for example in the Fulbe one, the griot cast is divided into mabo, gawlo and tiapourta. The first are usually close to the big family, and he is the living archive and whose members evoke the heroic gestures by accompanying them with the lute. Considered an advisor of the noble families he is the spokesman in public situations where once it was not well considered that a prince or a king would speak out loud. He then talks to his griot into his ear his decisions. The griot would take a deep breath and in a solemn tone would inform the present people taking care of expressing the concept in an irresistible way.
If the Mabo word is considered true, the one of the gawlo is taken with precaution. It is for sure not the poor knowledge of the history and of tradition that he is blamed for but for the unctuous use he makes of it to force whoever is listening to pay him for his lyrical effusions, without hesitating to discredit whoever is not generous enough by saying what was supposed to remain unsaid.
In the social scale of the griots, the last place belongs to the tiapourta he who travels together with his instruments to villages, cities and countryside. He is very captured by the wild sound of instruments and with his verbal freedom he reaches obscenity, by taking advantage of the practice that allows a griot to remain untouched and unpunished for what he says.
Although it is true that one can not become a griot, but one is born griot, before becoming an inspired poet whose fame moves beyond the country he undergoes a teaching already at the age of 5 within the family and then later travels around and goes to real "study centres". For the malinke djelis this could be the school of Kela in the Manden region, where a hard period of learning can last more than ten years. Or else in Kita, which is considered the capital of the oratory art (djeliya) and still today is the centre of the Mande musical school.
Both the nobles and griots sons spend years in memorizing the ancestor’s stories without one knowing about the other (officially). The noble can not allow that griots are the only ones to know the whole story of their family, the griots have to avoid that the nobles', to whom they are tied, say or do something without them knowing. There are certain compositions that are the equivalent of "doors" (chapters) of the epics that are to remain unspoken to protect the name of a family and that none the less are to be repeated to be memorized and transmitted. But the griot is the only owner and if he would discover a noble repeating a refrain of certain songs he would be authorized to ask for plenty of money and to tease them in front of everybody.
Knowing that, the griot through his talking always hides some truth therefore the addressees don't fully trust his art. Conscious of this, before starting a performance the griot often starts by saying “I will tell you a part of the story and will keep some of it in my tummy".
Whether he works for the truth or for a lie the griot's tongue is often compared to honey and hot peppers and he can either turn off a fire or widen it. He is not loved by the free men because they belong to a cast and the griot in response shows off "not bothering neither of the rain nor of the sun" meaning he doesn't need to work the land to live. In fact, in the cast system the free men are farmers, nobles are warriors. The cast includes artisans, smiths, carpenters, shoemakers, weavers and griots. The last ones on the social scale are the slaves. The prince who are proud to have untouchable arms, symbol of power from which cast men are excluded, he reminds that "the blade of the knife can be pointy but it will never be able to cut it's own handle", meaning that a noble man can not talk good about himself, he needs someone else to praise him in order to be realistic. To others who belong to another casts and who denigrate him he replies "if you say that knowing how to talk is useless it is because your word has never saved you from death."
The griot's ambivalence seems to be tied to that of the word. As the proverb says “the mouth is the sward that cuts the stomach of a man" and at the origin of the formation of casts in the malinke tradition a secret is revealed not by coincidence.
Legends and history of the origin
The malinke epic of Soundjata allows understanding the origin of the cast system in West Africa. The powerful Sumanguru (or Sumaoro) who was the chief of the carpenter’s dynasty; the Kante, was a great magician. When in the XIII century he was defeated by the prince hunter Sundjata, founder of the Keita prince dynasty, a partition of the noble families took place.
The traditional mande society is strongly layered, and was divided into three groups; horon (farmers, hunters), nyamakala (atisans, traders) and jon (sclaves). The nobles or horon (born free) established by the descendant of the Mali Empire founder, Sunjata Keita and his generals, is located on top of the hierarchy scale while the descendants of the slaves are at the bottom layer. The intermediate layer includes artisans as well as smiths (numu), leather workers, pot workers (garanke) and storytellers (djeli) considered "artisans of the word".
Because the slavery was abolished at the end of the colonial period, the mande society is divided in horon and nyamakala.
The artisans are those who have the power to "shape" with their hands the spiritual energy (nyama) specifically they are considered those who more than anyone else posses the dalilu (plural daliluw); the power to transform the specific mater that controls through supernatural forces (nayma)
All casts can be recognized by the family name: the nobles are Keita, Konaté, Touré; the djeli are Kouyaté or Diabaté; the numu are Camara, Konté or Kanté, Dumbia, Sissoko. Those belonging to the griot family can be easily recognized by their name: Kouyaté, Diabaté, Dramé, Niakaté, Soumano, these are some samples of the most known in Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso.
Each griot family owes an instrument. The Kouyaté have the balafon and the Diabate the kora, a 21 string harp by the celestial evocative sound.
The history tells that the first balafon or xylophone belonged to Sumanguru Kanté and that he was keeping it jealously. The personal griot of Sundjata entered secretly Suanguru's house where he kept all his fetish. Here he learned the secrets of Suangur’s powers and he started playing the xylophone which was strictly forbidden. He was caught in the act by the King-carpenter and he improvised a song to praise Sumanguru who like it and exclaimed "it is too good to have someone praise you" and cut his ligament so that he could not go away from him. He then imposed on him the name ‘Bala Faseke Kouyate", meaning "you who have seen my xylophone and played it, there is a secret between you and me".
The kora's history instead is that it was stolen from a female spirit in the caves of Kansala, in actual Gambia by Touramakan who was Soundjata's general belonging to the Toure family which subsequently gave it to his djeli, Djelimaly Oule Diabate: from then on the kora belonged to the Diabate.
The griots tradition dates from Diakum Dua the personal griot of Soundiata Keita even if in the Islamic view the precursor is considered Suakhata, he who praised the Saaba, the companion of the Prophet. The same Kouyate who recognizes in Sourakata Ben Zafara, Mohammed's companion, the ancestor of all griots. In a legend in Cote D'Ivoire we find that Sourakata was tortured because he did not pray and when he asks Mohammed to be forgiven he says "seeing that he shouts well don't kill him. He will stay with us and will shout. All the sons and grandsons of Sourakata will be griots".
Once they worked for the king as entertainers, advisors, messengers and now griots are often independent and the role they play is to entertain in private homes, where they are invited for festivities to celebrate (weddings, baptisms ecc) to narrate the gestures of their host. In Mali the Mandingo djeli and the gnegno (plural gneibe) belonging to the Peul are also mediators and messengers between two noble families. To ask someone in marriage (the cola nuts are takien and offered to the father of the future bride, this has a symbolic important meaning). Sometimes the griot is the intermediate in conflict situations as for example in family disputes, they find a solution or a compromise between the two families or two of the familie members.
Even though their social level is very low, the griots are well respected for being wise and for their musical talent. They are also feared because it is said that they have magical powers and because of their knowledge of the past. They are eccentric and they can say "uncomfortable" things and insult their customers for being greedy without being punished. Their ambiguous position characterized by a low social level but a high importance, allows them mobility and freedom within the cast system.
The griot’s repertoire is made up of pieces (julo) or songs (donkili). Mainly the fasa (from fa father and siya lineage) referring to the history of the genealogy and the history of the Mandingo dynasty. The most famous amongst the jelo are Sundjata (Sundiata fasa), Keme Burama, Allah La Ke, Bani (Sanou), Duga, Janjon, Kaira, Kedo, Kulanjan, Mali Sadjo, Mansane Cisse and Tubaka.
Posted by GM
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