Griots and Griottes

    -- Thomas A. Hale, Indiana University Press, 1998. 410 pages.

“The purpose of this book is to bring to readers interested in Africa a synthesis of information from my own work and that of other scholars. The book… includes research in Niger, Mali, Senegal and The Gambia as well as in archives and libraries in Europe and North America. Accounts by travelers, explorers, and colonial administrators, as well as recent anthropological and historical reports by scholars and my own interviews with more than a hundred griots on three continents, create a diverse mosaic of information on a profession that is central to understanding many West African societies.” (pp. 5-7). Hale’s extensive personal and bibliographic research makes this the best general book I have read on professional griots in the West African context, with a superb 25-page bibliography (including many African authors and researchers) and a helpful index. It is more general than Eric Charry’s “Mande Music” (reviewed in EthnoDoxology 1/2), dealing with a wider geographical and content area. Hale includes a great deal more than Charry on oral forms of communication other than music.

The term griot has disputed origins that are explored in the text and an appendix of this book (griotte is the feminine form of griot, from the French), but Hales defends his use of the term for such a wide-ranging study, using bard, wordsmith and artisan of the word as synonyms or partial synonyms. The primary function of griots is verbal art, with music a closely related but secondary activity—and a lengthy list of other roles is explored in the text (including Genealogist, Historian, Advisor, Spokesperson, Mediator, Interpreter and Translator, Musician, Teacher, Exhorter, Warrior, Witness, Praise-singer, and Ceremony Participant). He includes chapters on the origin of griots, different forms of verbal art in oral communications, the musical aspects of “griothood”, how griots are trained, modernization and globalization. His writing aims to synthesize and generalize, using specific examples (mostly textual and in translation) from different contexts to illustrate his points. This has the weakness of giving little depth on any one culture (which could be frustrating if the reader was looking for specifics on “their” people group), but gives a rich overview of culturally unifying factors across West Africa and highlights some significant variations. The book does not deal in depth with musical issues directly, but rather sets the musical abilities and roles of the griots in their wider cultural context.

Gender issues and the role of women griottes is a particular strength of this book, in contrast to others. Hale says, “As I prepared to undertake research for this book, I realized that men were only part of the story and that I needed to learn more about griottes if I were to arrive at a more holistic understanding of the profession” (p. 223). Relatively little has been written about women’s roles in oral culture and professional music, and it is refreshing to see this imbalance addressed and the need for further research highlighted.

The book ends with several useful appendices of griot resources: media sources, contacts for griots working in the USA, ethno-specific terms for griots and theories for the origin of the word griot.

    --reviewed by Sue Hall, Senegal

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony