West African Griots played highly significant roles in traditional West African societies, and were charged with a number of responsibilities that rivaled even those of kings. Although kings were responsible for the safe-keeping and custody of their subjects on a daily basis, griots were charged with the preservation of the knowledge and the history of those people, and that of their ancestors. Griots were responsible for remembering and disseminating — at prudent times — information from generations gone past that could both advise kings and provide benefit to the people that those kings governed. Griots simultaneously encompassed the role of advisor, historian, and guardian of worldly and sorcerous knowledge that was equivalent to the sum of the wisdom attained through particular tribes of people, which an examination of D.T. Niane’s story, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, sufficiently demonstrates.
In a literal sense, griots were masters of the oral tradition that dominated West African culture at the time period depicted within Nian’s manuscript. These individuals were specifically taught histories of the people that they lived amongst for the purpose of the preservation of their legacy and to apply that history, and knowledge, as need be to benefit the kings they advised. The following quotation from Niane’s book — which largely chronicles events told by a griot named Mamdou Kouyate, illustrates these facts. “I derive my knowledge from my father Djeli Kedian, who also got it from his father; history holds no mystery for us; we teach the vulgar just as much as we want to teach them” (Niane 1). This quotation emphasizes that griots are highly knowledgeable about the histories of their tribesmen, and that they use this knowledge to “teach” others at their discretion. An analysis of the two principle griots denoted within Sunidata: An Epic of Old Mali indicates that frequently, griots used this knowledge to assist kings in the capacity of an advisor.
A person becomes a griot in much the same way that one becomes a king. There is a hereditary passing of this title amongst griots to their offspring, in much the same way that kings’ offspring will become princes who one day mature into kings themselves. This hereditary passing of the title and position of griot is of immense importance, since griots typically learn all of the history and knowledge of their ancestors from their immediate ancestors — their fathers. This tradition is elucidated within Niane’s manuscript as the father of king Nare Maghan’s griot, Gnankouman Doua, was the griot for Maghan’s father, and the son of Doua, Balla Fasseke, was the griot for Maghan’s son, Sundiata. The relationship between all of these kings and their griots was a close friendship that extended itself into practical and personal matters of diplomacy.
As the preceding paragraph indicates, there are several griots alluded to and depicted within Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. The griots of Maghan and Sundiata played integral roles in the daily lives of their respective kings by advising them of both personal and professional matters. However, the griot who may be of the most importance within this novel is the one who is relaying this entire tale, Mamadou Kouyate. It is from his introductory chapter that the reader ascertains the full gravity that this position entails, and uncovers the full breadth of knowledge that those who attain this standing are privy to. It is from Kouyate that the reader learns of the hereditary nature of this position, as well as the fact that griots are the keepers of secrets which they may reveal in parts at their discretion to lead their believers in any way they deem necessary (Niane 1).
Niane, D.T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. 1965. Web. http://clio.missouristate.edu/jabidogun/niane1965.pdf