New book excerpt: the djeli (griot)
Ali Farka Toure was a giant among men. His music, his generosity, and his work ethic loom large, even after his passing. “The Blues,” is what many westerners would call his music, with its trance-like tonalities, wails and moans, and the heavy, incessant rhythm. He often said that for him, the blues was merely a color. This desert music -- sung in several languages indigenous to Mali: Songhai, Peul, Bambara, Tamashek -- predates the blues by more than a thousand years. Contrary to the imaginations of many western historians, Africans did not come to the New World devoid of culture. Their musical and cultural traditions are the seed from which western Black music grew. Transformed in the crucible of the inhumanities and horrors of enslavement, segregation, discrimination and Jim Crow, it is the story of Black people in North America after Africa. Nineteenth century Black banjo music, ragtime, blues, jazz, -- all of these musical forms owe their genesis to the pentatonic scales and blue notes found in the musical traditions of the Mali empire.
Griots (djeli) are the keepers of this tradition, which is at least 1,500 years old. They are the living memory of the Mali Empire and Mandinka culture. Djeli means “blood.“ Djelis are found in a wide swath across West Africa, each ethnic group having their own name for the caste. This ancient profession includes advising kings and accompanying them into battle, recording the history and genealogy of the people, mediating disputes and contracts, bestowing blessings at marriages, births, baptisms, funerals, as well as playing music. First and foremost, djelis are masters of the spoken word. It is said that a djeli is unable to lie. It is also said that when a djeli dies it is like a library has burned to the ground.
One does not become a djeli, rather one is born a djeli. This hereditary caste, though indispensable to Malian culture, does not enjoy a lofty status in Malian society. The term can be employed with derision; indeed, non-djelis have been heard to refer to them as slaves. Perhaps this is because they always accompany the nobility. However, a true consideration of the term reveals the various skills that must be mastered in the practice of djeliya (“griotisme” in French). Many mothers and fathers recoil at the thought of their daughters marrying into a djeli family. Known for their patronage of the upper classes, these men (and women) commonly require payment for their services and the blessings that the djeli bring. It is common for the rich, upon hearing their emotive praises set to song, to shower djeli with money, cars, even entire homes. Some djeli are cosmopolitan in their outlook and financially successful. Others have not left their corner of the world and live quite meagerly. There also exists the stereotype of the djeli as an artist who lives perpetually with his hand extended, surviving off of the generosity of the noble classes. However, not all djeli play music. Many become teachers, intellectuals and writers, while some follow other careers. No matter what profession one chooses, the designation of djeli can never be shaken.
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