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Senegalese Wolof griot, 1890
A Hausa Griot performs at Diffa, Niger, playing a Komsa (Xalam).

A griot (/ˈɡr/; French: [ɡʁi.o]; Manding: jali or jeli (in N'Ko: ߖߋߟߌ,[1] djeli or djéli in French spelling); Serer: kevel or kewel / okawul; Wolof: gewel) is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, and/or musician.

The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a leader due to their position as an advisor to royal personages. As a result of the former of these two functions, they are sometimes called bards. They also act as mediators in disputes.

Occurrence and naming[edit]

Many griots today live in many parts of West Africa and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka or Malinké, Bambara, Soninke etc.), Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer,[2][3] Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs[citation needed], and many other smaller groups. There are other griots who have left their home country for another such as the United States or France and still maintain their role as a griot.

The word may derive from the French transliteration "guiriot" of the Portuguese word "criado", or the masculine singular term for "servant." Griots are more predominant in the northern portions of West Africa.[4]

In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: ߖߋ߬ߟߌ jèli[5] in northern Mande areas, jali in southern Mande areas, guewel in Wolof, kevel or kewel or okawul in Serer,[2][3] gawlo 𞤺𞤢𞤱𞤤𞤮 in Pulaar (Fula), iggawen in Hassaniyan[citation needed], arokin in Yoruba,[citation needed] and diari or gesere in Soninke.[6]

Terms: "griot" and "jali"[edit]

The Manding term ߖߋߟߌߦߊ jeliya (meaning "musicianhood") sometimes refers to the knowledge of griots, indicating the hereditary nature of the class. Jali comes from the root word ߖߊߟߌ jali or djali (blood). This is also the title given to griots in regions within the former Mali Empire. Though the term "griot" is more common in English, some, such as poet Bakari Sumano, prefer the term jeli.[citation needed]


Historically, Griots form an endogamous professionally specialised group or caste,[7] meaning that most of them only marry fellow griots, and pass on the storytelling tradition down the family line. In the past, a family of griots would accompany a family of kings or emperors, who were superior in status to the griots. All kings had griots, and all griots had kings, and most villages also had their own griot. A village griot would relate stories of topics including births, deaths, marriages, battles, and hunts.[8]

Griots have the main responsibility for keeping stories of the individual tribes and families alive in the oral tradition, with the narrative accompanied by a musical instrument. They are an essential part of many West African events such as weddings, where they sing and share family history of the bride and groom. It is also their role to settle disputes and act as mediator in case of conflicts. Respect for and familiarity with the griot meant that they could approach both parties without being attacked, and initiate peace negotiations between the hostile parties.[9]

Francis Bebey writes about the griot in African Music, A People's Art:[10]

The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel... The griot knows everything that is going on... He is a living archive of the people's traditions... The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle. The profession is by no means a male prerogative. There are many women griots whose talents as singers and musicians are equally remarkable.

In the Mali Empire[edit]

Griots of Sambala, king of Médina (Fula people, Mali), 1890

The Mali Empire (Malinke Empire), at its height in the middle of the 14th century, extended from central Africa (today's Chad and Niger) to West Africa (today's Mali and Senegal). The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita, whose exploits remain celebrated in Mali today. In the Epic of Sundiata, Naré Maghann Konaté offered his son Sundiata Keita a griot, Balla Fasséké, to advise him in his reign. Balla Fasséké is considered the founder of the Kouyaté line of griots that exists to this day.

Each aristocratic family of griots accompanied a higher-ranked family of warrior-kings or emperors, called jatigi. In traditional culture, no griot can be without a jatigi, and no jatigi can be without a griot. However, the jatigi can loan his griot to another jatigi.

Most villages also had their own griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and other life events.

In Mande society[edit]

In many Mande societies, the jeli was a historian, advisor, arbitrator, praise singer (patronage), and storyteller. They essentially served as history books, preserving ancient stories and traditions through song. Their tradition was passed down through generations. The name jeli means "blood" in Manika language. They were believed to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers. Speech was believed to have power in its capacity to recreate history and relationships.

Despite the authority of griots and the perceived power of their songs, griots are not treated as positively in West Africa as may be assumed. Thomas A. Hale wrote, "Another [reason for ambivalence towards griots] is an ancient tradition that marks them as a separate people categorized all too simplistically as members of a 'caste', a term that has come under increasing attack as a distortion of the social structure in the region. In the worst case, that difference meant burial for griots in trees rather than in the ground in order to avoid polluting the earth (Conrad and Frank 1995:4-7). Although these traditions are changing, griots and people of griot heritage still find it difficult to marry outside of their social group."[11] This discrimination is now deemed illegal.

Musical instruments used by griots[edit]

In addition to being singers and social commentators, griots are often skilled instrumentalists. Their instruments include stringed instruments like the kora, the khalam (or xalam), the ngoni, the kontigi, and the goje (or n'ko in the Mandinka language). Other instruments include the balafon, and the junjung.

The kora is a long-necked lute-like instrument with 21 strings. The xalam is a variation of the kora, and usually consists of fewer than five strings. Both have gourd bodies that act as resonator. The ngoni is also similar to these two instruments, with five or six strings. The balafon is a wooden xylophone, while the goje is a stringed instrument played with a bow, much like a fiddle.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: "West African plucked lutes such as the konting, khalam, and the nkoni (which was noted by Ibn Baṭṭūṭah in 1353) may have originated in ancient Egypt. The khalam is claimed to be the ancestor of the banjo. Another long-necked lute is the ramkie of South Africa."[12]

Griots also wrote stories that children enjoyed listening to. These stories were passed down to their children.

Present-day griots[edit]

Today, performing is one of the most common functions of a griot. Their range of exposure has widened, and many griots now travel internationally to sing and play the kora or other instruments.

Bakari Sumano, head of the Association of Bamako Griots in Mali from 1994 to 2003, was an internationally known advocate for the significance of the griot in West African society.

Pape Demba "Paco" Samb, a Senegalese griot of Wolof ancestry, is based in Delaware and performs in the United States.[13] Circa 2013, he performed in charity concerts for SOS Children's Villages in Chicago. As of 2023, Paco leads McDaniel College's Student African Drum Ensemble.[14][15][16][17] His own band is titled the Super Ngewel Emsemble.[15] Concerning the goals of modern-day griot, Paco has stated:

If you are griot, you have to flow your history and your family, because we have such a long history. You have to be traditional and share your culture. Any country you go to, you share your family with them.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

Film and theater[edit]



  • Alex Haley's 1976 novel Roots references a griot who passed down his family history through the oral tradition. When Haley traces his history, passing from his previous generation through the slave time, back to Africa, he thought there should be griots telling his history and the history of his ancestor, known in the family as "The African", who was captured in the bushes as he was seeking timber to make a talking drum. When Haley arrived in Africa to do research for his book, he believed he had found griots telling his history. Through them, he learned the ancestor's identity: Kunta Kinte. Since he first heard the story from his grandmother and then from his older cousin, he believed that these family members were griots themselves until someone put the story to writing. He later learned that his cousin had died within an hour of his arrival at the village. This story also illustrates the complexities of oral tradition, particularly when approached without expert knowledge. In 1981, it was shown by Donald Wright that the story of Kunta Kinte had been manufactured by a well-wisher.[22] Following the publication of Roots, this story was being told in multiple versions with various embellishments.
  • In Lawrence Hill's novel The Book of Negroes (2007), the main character Aminata Diallo becomes a jeli.
  • The Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma's novel Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote takes the form of a praise-song by the Sora, the griot, Bingo to the president-dictator of the fictitious République du Golfe. His final novel, Allah is not Obliged, prominently features a griot.
  • In Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983), the protagonist Avatara (Avey) takes on some characteristics of a griot, particularly in her commitment to passing on her aunt's oral story of the Igbo Landing to her grandchildren. In this story, Africans brought to the Sea Islands to be enslaved turned around and walked back to Africa over the water.
  • Malian novelist Massa Makan Diabaté was a descendant and critic of the griot tradition. Though Diabaté argued that griots "no longer exist" in the classic sense, he believed the tradition could be salvaged through literature. His fiction and plays blend traditional Mandinka storytelling and idiom with Western literary forms.[23]

Visual art[edit]

  • Beninese artist Pélagie Gbaguidi refers to herself as a contemporary griot, and works to unveil suppressed colonial and post-colonial West African histories with her art.
  • Neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat produced a series of paintings in 1984 which prominently feature griots, including 'Flexible', 'Gold Griot', and 'Sabado por la Noche'.[24]

Notable griots[edit]

Mandinka Griot Al-Haji Papa Susso performing songs from the oral tradition of the Gambia on the kora
This ancient baobab tree in the Réserve de Bandia, Sénégal, forms a living mausoleum for the remains of famed local griots.

Burkina Faso[edit]

Côte d'Ivoire[edit]



  • Osei Korankye


Guinea Bissau[edit]

  • Nino Galissa
  • Buli Galissa






See also[edit]


  1. ^ Faya Ismael Tolno (September 2011). "Les Recherches linguistiques de l'école N'ko" (PDF). Dalou Kende (in French). No. 19. Kanjamadi. p. 7. Retrieved 17 December 2020.
  2. ^ a b Unesco. Regional Office for Education in Africa, Educafrica, Numéro 11, (ed. Unesco, Regional Office for Education in Africa, 1984), p. 110
  3. ^ a b Hale, Thomas Albert, Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music, Indiana University Press (1998), p. 176, ISBN 9780253334589
  4. ^ Ho, Ro (15 November 2012). "Griot: Title given to a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and musician". Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  5. ^ "J-j". Bambara/Dioula Dictionary. An ka taa. Retrieved 19 January 2023.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  6. ^ Jablow, Alta (1984). "Gassire's Lute: A Reconstruction of Soninke Bardic Art". Research in African Literatures. 15 (4): 519–29. JSTOR 3819348.
  7. ^ Panzacchi, Cornelia (1994). "The Livelihoods of Traditional Griots in Modern Senegal". Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. Cambridge University Press, International African Institute. 64 (2): 190–210. ISSN 0001-9720. JSTOR 1160979. Retrieved 11 May 2023.
  8. ^ "Storytelling traditions across the world: West Africa". All Good Tales. 8 November 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2023.
  9. ^ "Manny Ansar: A cultural Caravan for Peace". Peaceprints. Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  10. ^ Bebey, Francis (1969, 1975). African Music, A People's Art. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books.
  11. ^ Hale, Thomas A. (1997). "From the Griot of Roots to the Roots of Griot: A New Look at the Origins of a Controversial African Term for Bard" (PDF). Oral Tradition. 12 (2): 249–278. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2017. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  12. ^ Robotham, Donald; Kubik, Gerhard (27 January 2012). "African Music". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  13. ^ News, Delaware State. "Dover Citywide Black History Month events on tap". Bay to Bay News. Retrieved 14 February 2023. {{cite web}}: |last= has generic name (help)
  14. ^ "Celebrations". GreenwichTime. 11 November 2018. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  15. ^ a b c "McDaniel student African Drumming ensemble hosts first performance". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  16. ^ "Silver Spring University Students Earn Academic Distinctions". Silver Spring, MD Patch. 9 January 2023. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  17. ^ Cristi, A. A. "McDaniel College Announces Cultural Activities, Performances And Exhibitions For Spring 2023". Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  18. ^ IMDb: "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever - All Cast & Crew". Accessed November 15, 2022
  19. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Tales and Tunes of an African American Griot (1973)". Accessed July 11, 2018.
  20. ^ Ousmane Sembène, Griot of the Screen by Lucas Keen June 2, 2021
  21. ^ Rubber Orchestras, 10 October 2011, retrieved 11 July 2018.
  22. ^ Wright, Donald R. (1981). "Uprooting Kunta Kinte: on the perils of relying on encyclopoaedic informants." History in Africa, volume VIII.
  23. ^ Diabaté, Massa Makan (1985). L'assemblée des djinns (in French). Paris: Éditions Présence Africaine.
  24. ^ "Basquiat's 'Griots' Painting, Sabado por la Noche, to Lead Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London | Auctions News | THE VALUE | Art News". Retrieved 7 July 2022.
  25. ^ Sonko-Godwin, Patience, Trade in the Senegambia Region: From the 12th to the Early 20th Century, Sunrise Publishers, 2004, ISBN 9789983990041

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]