In West Africa, Griots are artisans responsible for keeping the time-honored traditions of the past alive through music and storytelling, creating narratives that may be passed down orally to future generations. Often accompanying themselves on the kora (or the less-popular balafon, a xylophone, or koni, a 4-5-stringed lute), the Griots spin songs praising friends, recalling epic battles, and relating important local historical moments.
A hybrid type of instrument sometimes called a “harp-lute” (because it combines the neck and body of a lute with the playing technique of a harp), the kora is made by stretching animal skin across a large calabash gourd resonator, with 21 to 23 nylon strings divided into two parallel rows and attached at varying lengths to a long, round neck mounted perpendicular to the sound table. The kora is believed to date back to the 13th century, but really came into its own on the international music scene in the 20th century.
In many ways, the Griot tradition can be seen as the most ancient roots of rap music. While the beautiful sounds of the kora and the buoyant vocal melodies of the griots may seem to have little in common with modern day hip-hop, the lyrical lineage connecting the two is undeniable.
To quote Mali-based musician Baba Salah, “The Griots are the guardians of history. In our culture, everything is oral. There isn’t a written language. A majority of the people here can’t read. So it’s the Griot who transmits the history from father to son, mother to daughter. That’s why in Africa we say, ‘When an old person dies, it’s like a library has burned down.’”
Thanks to modern adaptations such as tuning pegs and contact pick-ups for electric amplification, artists like Toumani Diabate, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, and Foday Musa Suso have successfully introduced the kora to Western audiences, hopefully ensuring that the West African Griot legacy will continue to evolve and thrive for centuries to come. –Bret Love
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