A griot (; French: [i.o]), jali, or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a leader due to his or her position as an advisor to royal personages. As a result of the former of these two functions, they are sometimes called a bard.
According to Paul Oliver in his Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, "Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable". Although they are sometimes known as praise singers, griots may use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political commentary.
Griots today live in many parts of West Africa and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka, Malinké, Bambara, etc.), Ful?e (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs, and many other smaller groups. 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.
In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: jeli in northern Mande areas, jali in southern Mande areas, guewel in Wolof, gawlo in Pulaar (Fula), and iggawen in Hassaniyan. Griots form an endogamous caste, meaning that most of them only marry fellow griots and those who are not griots do not typically perform the same functions that griots perform.
Francis Bebey writes about the griot in African Music, A People's Art:
"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."
The Manding term jeliya (meaning "musicianhood") sometimes refers to the knowledge of griots, indicating the hereditary nature of the class. Jali comes from the root word 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.
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 many other things.
In Mande society, the jeli was an 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 we may imagine. 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." This discrimination is now deemed illegal.
In addition to being singers and social commentators, griots are often skilled instrumentalists. Their instruments include the kora, the khalam (or xalam), the goje (or n'ko in the Mandinka language), the balafon, and the ngoni.
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 Ba?ah 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."
Griots also wrote stories that children enjoyed listening too. These stories were passed down to their children.
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.