Griots were the storytellers and entertainers in Ancient Africa. In the Western African culture of the Mande people, most villages had their own griot who was usually a man. Griots were an important part of the culture and social life of the village.
The main job of the griot was to entertain the villagers with stories. They would tell mythical stories of the gods and spirits of the region. They would also tell stories of kings and famous heroes from past battles. Some of their stories had moral messages that were used to teach the children about good and bad behavior and how people should behave in order to make their village stronger.
Griot Musicians Source: Bibliotheque nationale de France
Griots were also the historians of Ancient Africa. They would keep track and memorize the history of the village including births, deaths, marriages, droughts, wars, and other important events. The stories and historical events would then be passed down from generation to generation. Because there was no written record of the village history, the stories of the griots became the history and the only record of past events.
The griot also was the musician for the village. Different griots played different instruments. The most popular instruments were the kora (a stringed instrument sort of like a harp), the balafon (a wooden instrument like a xylophone), and the ngoni (a small lute). Griots would often play music while telling stories or singing.
Balafon - The balafon is a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone. It is made out of wood and has up to 27 keys. The keys are played with wooden or rubber mallets. The balafon has been around since the 1300s.
Kora - The kora is a stringed instrument similar to a harp, but with some qualities of a lute. It is traditionally made from a calabash (like a large squash) cut in half and then covered with cow skin. The neck is made from hardwood. The typical kora has 21 strings.
Ngoni - The ngoni is a stringed instrument similar to a lute. The body is made from hollowed out wood with animal skin stretched across the opening. It has 5 or 6 strings that are plucked with the fingers and thumb when playing.
Modern Day Griots
There are still many modern day griots in Africa, especially in Western African countries like Mali, Senegal, and Guinea. Some of the most popular African musicians today consider themselves griots and use traditional compositions in their music. Most griots today are traveling griots. They move from town to town performing at special occasions like weddings.
Interesting Facts about the Griots of Africa
Most griots were men, but women can also be griots. Women griots usually specialized in singing.
Another name for griot is "jeli."
Although griots were well-respected (and sometimes feared for their magical powers), they were considered a low-ranking caste in the hierarchy of African social life.
During the Mali Empire, griots of the royal family took on an even more important role. Often the griot of the emperor would serve as counselor and spokesman for the emperor.
The griots often served as mediators between villages when they had issues and disagreements.
Some historians believe that the ngoni instrument eventually became the banjo after traveling to America along with West African slaves.