Who are the GRIOTS and what was their role in the History of ancient Mali? Essay
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The word “griot” now means just “singer” or “music seller”, however, historically this word meant a person recoding history, laws and customs. Griots were a kind of public servants, “culture keepers” who passed historical experience from generation to generation being “repositories which harbour secrets many centuries old”. Very roughly the griots can be compared to Celtic bards, although the functions of griots appear to be much broader, inclding public service where they actually occupied various influential positions like historians, archivists and king’s advisors, while “officially” staying just singers.
The griots were people addicted to music which was their occupation,. their way of life and their method for conservation and transfer of information in a form of songs and anthems, as well as a mistical experience tying them to the upper world.. “The griot always has a weakness for music, for music is the griot’s soul”, thus says the text of “Sundiata”. Many of the griots lived at the court of the Malian kings and performed their services as government officials.
The text of the “Sundiata” includes a direct explanation of functions performed by griots: “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”. And indeed every influential ruler including King Maghan Kon Fatta had their own griots. The griots even had their own dinasties similar to the ones of the kings, and the authority of the griots was at least comparable to the authority of a ruler. The griots justified their reputation for now we know of Sundiata and his rule mostly thanks to the oral tradition preserved by griots.
Throughout the “Sundiata” epic the griots are demonstrated as epic singers and men of culture possessing the highest imaginable moral qualities, for “royal griots do not know what lying is”. Approval by griots is a powerful recognition for king’s legality, and one can realize that Sundiata is a true ruler since he is praized in the songs of the griots. As “culture keepers” and “history keepers” the griots in the “Sundiata” compare the actions of their contemporaries and events that take place at the moment to the examples of the past and conclude whether this or that action is viruous or not.
Thus the rule of Sundita is blessed both by reference to historical experience and by the authority of griots as “best people” of Mali. Further in his actions Sundiata relies on the advices given by griots, for “whoever knows the history f the country can read its future”. They are not only historians, but prophets who are able to notice a future great ruler in a child of whom the people speak with scorn. The importance of griots for the Malian society was so high that they were valued more than any other servants and even warriors.
Sundiata could rule by virtue of griots blessing, but no king could ever be recognized without griots consent. More than that, the griots were able to overthrough kings. As written in the “Sundiata”, “kings are only men and whatever iron cannot achieve against them, words can”. In other words, the authority of the king was viewed as earthly, while the giots had a supernatural moral authority for the Malinke people. By sharing their authority with the kings the griots legalized their rule in the eyes of the people.