When discussing the poetry created by African Americans just prior to the Civil War, another African tradition comes into play: that of the West African griot. In West African culture, both historically and today, each tribal clan has had its griot, an itinerant clan member who is combination historian-musician-storyteller: "A Griot is an oral historian and musician," explains Foday Musa Suso, one of West Africa 's most respected and well-known contemporary griots. "Griots were trusted court advisors to the kings of West Africa from the twelfth century to the twentieth. Every king wanted a Griot to recite the history of the kingdom, and to pass it down from father to son. History wasn't written down – everything was memorized and recited or sung." The griot memorized the clan's significant events such as births, deaths, marriages, hunts, and wars, ensuring the continuity of the collective heritage and culture. "If you want to buy some cloth, go to the weaver. If you want a hoe, ax or knife, then go to the blacksmith. But if you want to know the history of the people, you must go to the griots." Often accompanied by the kora (a harp-like stringed instrument), drumming and/or the handclapping of the villagers, a griot might speak for hours, even days, drawing upon a practiced and memorized history, passed from griot to griot for generations. It is said that, "when a griot dies, a library has burned to the ground."
I heard this saying often while growing up, usually in reference to an elder of the church who had died. But it wasn't until I was well into my thirties that I took the time to find out precisely what a griot was.
Interestingly, the griot was not an objective observer and recorder of the events in his community. In his impressive study of the griot oral tradition, Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music, historian Thomas A. Hale provides an extensive "job description" for the griot: historian, genealogist, advisor, spokesperson, diplomat, mediator, interpreter/translator, musician/composer, teacher, exhorter, warrior, witness, and praise-singer. With such an extensive skill set, it is no wonder that griots "became so valued that they were not allowed to leave the chief's side, especially during discussions, trials, and deliberations, in order to support his criticisms and to approve his decisions." Clearly, states Hale, the griot's role extends much further than the simple recitation of events. He or she must provide "a reading of the past for audiences in the present, an interpretation that reflects a complex blend of both past and present values."
In other words, the griot wields the Sasa; he or she essentially contains Sankofa, illuminating the present by means of the past, as in these lines from the praise-song from contemporary African griot Zolani Mkiva (quoted in Kaschula), created to commemorate the installation of Nelson Mandela as the first President of the African National Congress:
Nations are talking
Leaders are speaking
The day for which we waited has arrived
That is why we are saying:
People of this united land, stand up, stand up with pride!
The honey bird is never without plans
I wonder what the people of this land have done?
Stand up Mandela, stand up with pride!
That is Mandela
The rest of the world cried with us
And the struggle continues