Mande Musical Culture 

The guardians of the Mande musical culture are called djelis or griots. Historically they trace back to the 13th century of the Malian Empire, when they were court musicians, oral historians, and advisors to the noble classes. Djelis are highly trained and their knowledge has been passed down through generations through a limited number of families. A griot or djeli is a living library, committing vast amounts of knowledge to memory. As the saying goes, “Every griot who dies, is a library which disappears.”

For the Mande culture, the griot is a bridge between the everyday world and the unknown world. In legend and mythology, musical instruments such as the kora are given to humans by the forest spirits known as jinns. The griot, as a master of these instruments, must be able to control the energy of this unknown world. The Mande believe that there is a vital life force, nyama, that exists in everything. This is a vital force which needs to be handled very carefully for fear that it could harm the person who is manipulating it. In practice, this means that the griot must respect certain values such as humility, generousity, personal discipline and self control.

Within a griot family, one must study the knowledge of the past and look to the future. Each griot works on his own individual contribution to the music and the songs. The sense of tradition coexists with a sense of adventure and exploration. In modern times, the djelis no longer benefit from the patronage of medieval noble classes of old, so many have established themselves in Europe and North America, where they continue to keep the past alive by remembering and by making it come alive through music and song.

The griot tradition has proved remarkably resilient, seven centuries after its beginnings during the Malian Empire. No West African celebration or special occasion, in Africa and elsewhere, is complete without a griot’s participation. A griot sings, praises, celebrates, announces, as well as many other things, but most of all, a griot remembers.