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Traditional Storytelling in Africa

Storytelling traditions vary all over the world, yet have many things in common. This section is an attempt to gather information on customs of the oral tradition world-wide. Many people today are rediscovering the pleasures of telling stories, after their culture has lost most of its traditional storytelling, yet cannot easily find out much about the countless millennia of oral traditions with all their wisdom and techniques. I hope this site will help you discover and appreciate something of the central role which traditional storytelling has played in most cultures, and in some places still does.

Your help will be welcome if you know or come across any facts or resources to add, current or historical. To begin with I'll be adding bits and pieces as I can, mainly from the perspective of musical commentators. Later on we'll have overviews and this page will split into various areas - this is a big subject!

One thing to bear in mind is that in many old traditions storytelling is synonymous with song, chant, music, or epic poetry, especially in the bardic traditions. Stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. Therefore some who would be called folk musicians by foreign music enthusiasts are just as accurately called storytellers - their true roles are more profound, as their names reflect: bards, ashiks, jyrau, griots amongst many more. Their roles in fact are often as much spiritual teachers and exemplars, or healers, for which the stories and music are vehicles, as well as historians and tradition-bearers. For instance bakhshi, the term for bard used in central Asia, means a shaman / healer who uses music as a conduit to the world of the Spirit. You can see photos of some of the above people in the Gallery and hear some of them on world music recordings. Also see the Musical Instruments for Storytelling page, for descriptions and discussion.

For genuine initiates of these bardic disciplines, they draw directly on the conscious creative power of the Divine and transmit it through the words they speak and sing. This is not the same as merely 'being creative' or 'feeling inspired', and involves considerable spiritual training. Different cultures and religions have different ways of describing this, though in general the practice is highly secret. For example, for the West African culture of the Manding, who call this power nyama,

“It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe. While nyama molds nature into its many forms, the nyamakalaw (handlers of nyama) can shape nyama into art. The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation. The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards.”

The World of the Mande: History, Art and Ritual in the Mande Culture, and Caste Systems in Mande Society, Anthropology/Africana Studies 269 and Anthropology/Africana Studies 267, Prof. Mandy Bastian (Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA) 1997-1999

But this section isn't only for the bardic traditions of storytelling - all other less formal traditions are part of the picture too, from hearthside informal telling or street tellers engaging passers-by, to traditional dramatic presentations, so if you can offer any details at all send them to me, Tim Sheppard.

Many traditions have spread across neighbouring countries because of old patterns of migration, empires, or religion, so this site is organised by geography. An alphabetical list of countries covered so far is also provided, but for the full picture do read the regional introduction on each page.

Other areas:

Asia and Middle East
Australasia and Oceania
Europe
North America
South and Central America

On this page:

Introduction
North Africa
West Africa

Ethiopia
Gambia
Guinea
Kenya
Mali
Mauritania
Morocco
Senegal
South Africa
Swaziland
Tanzania
Uganda

Introduction

“Traditionally, Africans have revered good stories and storytellers, as have most past and present peoples around the world who are rooted in oral cultures and traditions. Ancient writing traditions do exist on the African continent, but most Africans today, as in the past, are primarily oral peoples, and their art forms are oral rather than literary. In contrast to written "literature," African "orature" (to use Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o's phrase) is orally composed and transmitted, and often created to be verbally and communally performed as an integral part of dance and music. The Oral Arts of Africa are rich and varied, developing with the beginnings of African cultures, and they remain living traditions that continue to evolve and flourish today.”

“Language is a primary means of learning and transmitting one’s culture, and it is used to help define and distinguish different ethnic groups and cultures. Consider the fact that more than 450 languages are spoken in modern Nigeria.”

“Secular tricksters like Tortoise often project the kinds of evil forces and bad behaviors against which the human community must contend to survive and which must be kept in check. This goal is rehearsed and achieved in communal performances of African proverbs and folktales, wherein the trickster’s bad anti-social behaviors are usually punished, and the evil forces unleashed are controlled or defeated. Thus, for example, recounting Tortoise stories in African communities can function to reaffirm the priority and wisdom of the community, reassure its members that balance and harmony can and should be restored, and that the community will survive and prevail.”

“Oral African storytelling is essentially a communal participatory experience. Everyone in most traditional African societies participate in formal and informal storytelling as interactive oral performance—such participation is an essential part of traditional African communal life, and basic training in a particular culture’s oral arts and skills is an essential part of children’s traditional indigenous education on their way to initiation into full humanness.”

“Call and response forms, found seemingly everywhere in Africa, entail a caller or soloist who "raises the song," as the Kpelle say, and the community chorus who respond, or "agree underneath the song" (Mutere, "African Oral Aesthetic"). In the case of the Igbo stories, the storyteller "calls" out the story in lines; the audience or chorus "responds" at regular intervals to the storyteller’s "calls" with a "sala" (the chorus’ response). The Igbo "sala" used in "Nnabe and Chineke" is "amanye," roughly equivalent to American English expressions of agreement like "amen" or "right on!" (Ihejetoh, qtd. in Jackson-Jones).

Traditional African societies have developed high aesthetic and ethical standards for participating in and judging accomplished oral storytelling performances—and audience members often feel free to interrupt less talented or respected secular performers to suggest improvements or voice criticisms.”

“In many of these cultures, storytelling arts are professionalized: the most accomplished storytellers are initiates (griots, or bards), who have mastered many complex verbal, musical, and memory skills after years of specialized training. This training often includes a strong spiritual and ethical dimension required to control the special forces believed to be released by the spoken/sung word in oral performances. These occult powers and primal energies of creation and destruction are called nyama by Mande peoples of Western Africa, for example [...]. This sense of special powers of the spoken word [...] has largely been lost in literate-based societies of the West...

Following a traditional griot performance of a spiritually-charged oral epic like Sundjiata, a Malian audience might ritualistically chant, "Ka nyama bo!" (which could be translated something like, "May the powers of nyama safely disperse!").”

Prof. Cora Agatucci, African Storytelling, Central Oregon Community College

Resources

African Storytelling - An introduction by Professor Cora Agatucci to the nature of storytelling in Africa, its centrality to culture, and influence on literature, complete with quotes and references. Also scroll down to the box of links for a huge resource on African culture and history, including many tidbits on oral traditions. See the African Timelines (especially part II), and African Links (especially sections on African Arts, Music, and Orature.)

North Africa

Griots in this area, for instance the Gnawa of Morocco, play the gimbri - a long-necked lute. See Mali, and also West Africa, for full details on griots.

West Africa

Much of West Africa is Mande - the culture inherited from the Manding Empire of Mali, but the term refers also to their family of languages and the areas that they occupy. Therefore most countries of West Africa share certain storytelling traditions, though there is much local variation.

“The Mande people are very magical in nature. This can be mostly attributed to the nyamakalaw subgroup; an endogamous people who are born with the inherent ability to control nature. The power they are able to wield so well is called nyama. In fact, their name nyama-kala could be translated as handlers (kala) of nyama. The Mande see nyama as a hot, wild energy that is the animating force of nature. Nyama is present in all the rocks, trees, people and animals that inhabit the Earth. It is similar to the Western notion of the soul but is more complete than that. It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe.

While nyama molds nature into its many forms, the nyamakalaw can shape nyama into art. The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation. The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards.”

“The Yoruba [mainly in southwest Nigeria] have a slightly different understanding about magic which they call ase. Ase is also present in all things and can be either good or evil. [...] Ase is most closely related to the griots (bards) of the Mande and their ability to make their nyama flow directly out of their body rather than into a sculpture or sword.”

Prof. Misty Bastian & students, Magic and Art in West Africa

“Mande society consists of two main groups: the Horonw and the Nyamakalaw. The Horonw, people of earth and agriculture, are the aristocracy, the warriors and the commoners. [...] These two groups often look upon each other with considerable disfavor and abhorence.

...Historically, the Horonw are the kings and rulers of Mande and comprise the majority of the population who live at the center of the villiage. The Nyamakalaw live in the bush on the outskirts of the town beyond the fields. This duality of the mundane and the magical, the calm and the wild, the cold and the hot, is directly a result of the Mande cosmogony or creation myth.”

Prof. Misty Bastian & students, History, Art and Ritual In the Mande Culture

“In the African countries where Islam has had a powerful influence and where chiefs exert considerable authority, much of the music-making is the province of the griots. These are traditional musicians who are employed as individuals, or in pairs, or even in very large groups and orchestras. In many savannah societies the griots are professional musicians, but in some --as in Senegal-- they are part-time entertainers and may also be farmers, fishermen or follow some other occupation. The latter may be attached to a village and may have only a small, local reputation as song-makers and instrumentalists, but in many regions the griots are employed by sultans, emirs, chiefs or headmen. Others --the most famous-- are free-ranging groups of professional musicians, unattached to any employer, who hire their services out to families, groups of workers or others who wish to hear and temporarily employ them.”

“A griot is required to sing on demand the history of a tribe or family for seven generations and, in particular areas, to be totally familiar with the songs of ritual necessary to summon spirits and gain the sympathy of the ancestors.”

“As Curt Sachs has noted, 'they importune the rich with either glorification or insults depending on whether their victims are open-handed or stingy. They often roam from village to village in gangs of about a dozen under a chief who is at the same time a seasoned historian and genealogist and knows to the last details the alliances, hostilities and conflicts that unite or oppose the families and villages of the country.' This puts the griots in a position of some power; they blackmail their listeners with their ridicule and are feared and despised for it, while being admired for their skill. The attitude of their audiences is ambivalent, for while they fear being the butt of their humour they want to hear the gossip and news they purvey, and listen to their music.”

Paul Oliver, Savannah Syncopators: African retentions in the blues, 1970.

Resources

The World of the Mande: History, Art and Ritual In the Mande Culture - an ongoing student study project with useful details about various aspects related to storytelling, including nyama, nyamakalaw, caste system, praise songs, and Malian epic.

About griots: Paul Oliver - Extract from the book Savannah Syncopators: African retentions in the blues. A clear and detailed statement of the complexity surrounding who griots are, what they do, and how they fit (or fitted) into traditional societies. Though being by a musicologist, the emphasis is on their being musicians rather than the storytellers they also are.

Ethiopia

Itinerant minstrels here are called azmari (singer, in Amharic), and accompany themselves with a plucked wooden bowl lyre called a krar. Azmari also use a spike-fiddle with one string, called a masenqo. Most traditional music is played by the azmari, who are regarded with both suspicion and respect by Ethiopian society. Their witty praise songs and social commentary are often heard in the lively drinking establishments.

Resources

Asnaqètch Éthiopiques 16 - The Lady with the Krar, Buda 822652 - Excellent CD of one of Ethiopia's foremost female artists, who started her career as an azmari in disreputable drinking dens and gained a wide reputation in the '70s for her wit and verbal talent.

Kenya

“Each ethnic group has a large store of riddles, proverbs and sayings, which are still an important aspect of daily speech. Riddles were usually exchanged in the evening before a storytelling session. Riddling sessions are usually competitions between two young people who fictionally bet villages, or cattle, or other items of economic life on the outcome. Many cultures have a prohibition on telling riddles during daylight hours.

The Kikuyu had a very elaborate sung riddle game, a duet called the enigma poem or gicandia set text poem of riddles. It is sung in a duet and the players are in a competition. The duet is strikingly different than the normal singing of the Kikuyu performed by a soloist and a chorus. The poem is learned by heart. A decorated gourd rattle accompanies the singing. One gicandi may consists of 127 stanzas.”

“The Swahili people on Kenya's coast have had a rich oral tradition that has been influenced by Islam. Stories of genies are told side by side with stories of hare and hyena. There is also a very rich tradition of popular poetry that has been part of Swahili cultural life for over four centuries.

Kenyan radio and television shows use folklore as part of their daily programming. Oral literature is part of the secondary and university syllabus. Part of the requirement in these classes is for students to collect folklore from their parents and grandparents. Kenyans believe that folklore is an important part of their heritage and culture and are taking steps to preserve and encourage folklore and education. While global culture in the shape of movies, music and literature is replacing folklore, Kenyans are actively involved in its maintenance.”

Kenya Folklore - East Africa Living Encyclopedia

Resources

Kenya Folklore - East Africa Living Encyclopedia - more details on the folklore, importance of proverbs, and a bibliography.

Mali, Guinea, Senegal and Gambia

The descendants of the Manding Empire of Mali now inhabit these countries, as well as Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana. In Manding culture all music is played by the jali (also spelled jeli, djeli, yeli), a caste of professional musicians, also called in French griots (pronounced gree-oh). Their art is called jaliya. There are women jalis, called jalimusolu, some of whom are today like superstars. Griots or jalis are praise-singers, historians, and so of course tell the important stories of the culture. Their first recorded mention is in the account of the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited the court of Mali into 1352. It reports that 'the poets... are called jla , singular jl.'

“The griot blends pre-islamic and islamic knowledge systems and values. He cultivates both muslim scholarship and esoteric tradition.”

Tierno S. Bah, Mali: History, the State and Religion

“Those born into a jali family are regarded as jalis whether or not they have ever touched an instrument or sung a note.”

“Until the end of the nineteenth century, when the French put an end to traditional kingship, substituting it with chieftancies, the jalis were attached to the royal courts. They entertained the nobility with their epic songs and stories about the major events in Manding history. They guarded the knowledge of genealogies and the complex 'praise names' attached to every surname.”

Lucy Duran, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

“Djeli in fact comes from the same root as the word for 'blood', because the first responsibility for the djeli is to sing and praise the bloodline of the noble families, from generation to generation. And in effect it is a caste (not to be totally considered as the caste system in India) in West African society. It has strict rules, genealogical and other, and is a 'closed shop' to use more Western terminology. However in other parts of Africa, further to the East, this system is not in effect.”

Sam Canarozzi, storyteller

“Mali...was the heart of the Mande Empire founded by Sunjata Keita in the early13th century and which lasted nearly 300 years... Jalis...recount the histories of the great warrior-kings like Sunjata. The Sunjata epic is core repertoire for the jalis.”

Simon Broughton, Songlines, #18, p.50, May 2003.

“Although their status is not as high as the freeborn, jalis are highly respected for their skills, nor just as musicians and entertainers, but as trusted messengers and advisors. The jali is considered lower on the social scale because, as the late Gambian kora player Jali Nyama Suso explains, 'a member of the nobility will not talk freely to someone of the same class, who might be a rival, whereas musicians can be trusted because they are no threat'. They have played a vital role in Manding history: 'They're journalists, they interpret events of now and of the past', he remarks. 'The art of the jalis lies in their ability to praise, which gave our kings the courage to fight battles.' Indeed, battles could be won or lost by the sheer power of the jali's word. Nowadays, they may sing for politicians or businessmen instead of kings, but they function in very similar ways. Their gift of speech has made them ideal 'go-betweens' - they patch up quarrels and feuds, arrange marriages, and negotiate the most delicate economic and political matters. In the words of Toumani Diabaté, one of Mali's most brilliant young kora-players, 'They are the needle that sews.'

The jalis operate like a closed trade union, and guard their profession with jealousy. Until recently it was difficult for a non-jali to take up music as a profession, and in practice very few have done so.”

“There are many versions of how jalis originated. Some musicians recount how a certain Sourakata, while mocking the Prophet Mohammed in disbelief, was frozen in his tracks three times. After the third demonstration, he realized the power of the prophet, and his taunts became praises. From then on, the principal role of the jali has been that of 'praise singer'.

The jalis traditionally make their living on the generosity of patrons (jatigui in Bamana and Maninka; jatio in Mandinka, literally meaning 'host'). In precolonial times, the patrons were kings (mansa), or otherwise members of the freeborn including farmers, traders and marabouts - Muslim holy men. Until the time of independence (when jalis were first employed as part of government-sponsored ensembles) they were never paid as such but instead received gifts, sometimes of extraordinary generosity, which might include land, animals, a house, cloth, gold, wives and slaves. Still today, the jalis praise their patrons with phrases like 'the hundred-giver' (kemenila), meaning someone who gives one hundred of something.

Patron and jali have a close, trusting and mutually dependent friendship. In precolonial times, if the jatigui died, the jali might even commit suicide. Lanaya soro man di - 'It's not easy to find a trustworthy person' - is a constant refrain of Manding songs, reminding both jali and patron of their duty of loyalty to each other. Those who consider themselves patrons rely heavily on the advice and diplomacy of their jali. The presidents of Mali, Guinea, The Gambia and Senegal have had thousands of songs dedicated to them. But while the jalis are praise-singers, their relationship is not based on deference. In the words of Jali Nyama Suso, 'I may have patrons, but no-one is my boss.'”

“[All praise songs] tend to follow the same structure. The singing is divided into two sections, a choral refrain or donkili which is precomposed and the improvisation.

The vocal improvisations are formulaic, consisting mainly of praising family surnames and reciting their ancestors. Every family name has an epithet or jammu which tells something of its origin. The name Musa, for example, is praised by saying 'Jealous and able Musa, four-eyed Musa; Bala, the adventure-seeking Musa, which were the praises for Musa Molo, last king of the Mandinka, who died in 1931.”

“Proverbs and pithy sayings are also important. The lyrics are quite moralistic, warning against betrayal, hypocrisy and obsession. Saws like 'Silver and gold cannot buy a good name' litter lyrics as they do conversation.”

“By far the most popular of the three traditional instruments of the jalis is the kora, which is a cross between a harp and a lute with 21 to 25 strings. Unlike the other Manding instruments the kora traditionally is not played by any other ethnic group. Although some of the most famous kora players are from Mali,the kora itself is said to come originally from the area which is now Guinea-Bissau.

One of the oldest and most prestigious of the Manding instruments, formerly played to entertain kings, is an oblong lute which has three to five strings, a resonator carved from a single piece of wood, and a skin sound table. In Bamana and Maninka it is called ngoni, in Mankinka konting. This instrument is also played by griots from other peoples such as the Wolof, who call it khalam (xalam) and the Fula and Tukulor who call it hoddu. As an instrument type the earliest examples known are from ancient Egypt and it can be found throughout the West African savannah... West African slaves recreated this instrument in the New World, where it came to be known as the banjo.”

Lucy Duran, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

“The kora, the ngoni and the balaphone are the three indispensable melody instruments of the Manding [Mande] griot. All three instruments are found throughout the Mande world, but each has its region of dominance. The kora rules in Gambia, . . . In Mali, the ngoni is king, . . . [and Guinea] is the province of the balaphone.”

Cora Connection

“I have been to concerts and performances of teller-musicians, male and female, with the kora, balafon and ngoni. (There is also what the Malians call a 'hunter's ngoni' a smaller model of the same instrument that is easier to master.)”

Sam Canarozzi, storyteller

“The term fasa means both 'praise' and 'epic', and the epics certainly developed from shorter fasa. The epic of Sunjata, which tells the life and exploits of the founder of the Mali empire, is surely the longest account transmitted by the Mande jeli. ...More than twenty versions have been collected... One notes a great homogeneity of epics, in content as well as on the literary level (characterization, episode division, images and reasons, like musical topics).

There are several 'schools' of jeli, actually localised lineages, in the Mande Mountains (south of Mali, north of Guinea), corresponding to the cradle of the empire. ... Certain clans or lineages of jeli (Kouyaté, Diabaté...) were more particularly associated with certain branches of the dynasty of Keita and transmit their points of view on history. Griots of the Diabatés and certain descendants of Keita converge every seven years on Kangaba, a south Malian village, to recite and listen to a secret but particularly complete version of the Sunjata epic.”

Tal Tamari, on Jeli

“Among the Bambara-speaking people of Mali in Africa, the griots, the celebrated epic bards, customarily "warm up" before their recitations and during breaks in their lengthy performances by singing proverbs in rapid sequence. This practice serves the function of gaining the attention and respect of the audience, who think of proverb sayers as wise men knowing how the society works; hence the listeners will be ready to credit the historical tradition that follows.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

“Griots are professional historians who serve a ruler in much the same way that modern rulers are served by written constitutions, legal staff, and archival staffs. Griots recall what earlier leaders have done to advise current leaders on how to handle problems.

Griots also serve as orators who relay the words of the kings to the rest of the population, much as ancestors serve as intermediaries between Faro and living humans. One author described the relationship between griots and nobles in these terms: the griot has the power to speak, and the noble has the power to act. Since wider action requires the communication of the noble's will, the griot plays a crucial role in motivating an entire population to coordinated effort.”

Background to Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Resources

Mali Empire & Griot Traditions - a short introduction to the history and culture of the Manding griot (jali), including their instruments, with a few web-links to more.

Mali: History, the State and Religion - this brief abstract and outline of a paper, by Tierno S. Bah, presented at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, USA, provides a neat survey of some crucial points on the role of the griots and the history of their core subject of Sunjata, the founder of the Mali Empire.

Griot Music from Mali, by Siramori Diabaté - CD released on Pan Records PAN 2104, in 2003. Mali's most celebrated (late) griotte, born 1930, sings in the ancient and profound tradition, giving the words primary importance rather than singing for entertainment. The complex metaphors and alliterative praise names are all transcribed in the liner notes, giving storytellers the chance to understand the true form and import of this bardic tradition.

Grio—Salieu Suso, Kora. CD (scroll to two-thirds down page) 'The West African Jali, or musician, uses the kora to accompany narrations and songs (often improvised) honoring great patrons and recounting historical events. It is the main instrument of Mandinka Griot or Jaliba, who are traditional keepers of history, as well as musicians and storytellers.'

Mauritania

“Until recently Moorish society has had a strict hierarchical class system with musicians - iggawin - occupying the lowest rung beneath the warriors (hassans), merchants and others. Being a hereditary caste, their skills are handed down from father to son, or mother to daughter...

One traditional task of the iggawin was to follow the warriors into battle singing of their bravery and encouraging them into battle. At other times they would entertain their patrons with praise songs about the great deeds of their ancestors or act as social historians, poets and jokers. This is much like the role of the griots or jali elsewhere in West Africa. Before the days of radio it was also their job to act as newscasters, touring the villages reciting news from the outside world to musical accompaniments. They also sang epic songs which were used as teaching stories for the entertainment of children and adults alike. Today, however, professional musicians can be employed by anyone in return for money or other gifts.”

David Muddyman, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

Morocco

In Marrakesh’s famous Jemâa-el-Fna square there is a rich variety of storytelling traditions. The halca is the circle of listeners and spectators that forms around the halaiqui (storyteller) as he starts his tales in the hustle and bustle of the market place.

There are performances of classical works like The Thousand and One Nights and Antaria, legends based on Xeha, Aicha and Kandixa–to mention just three popular folk heroes–comic improvisations, and a number of sexual pantomimes by highly talented halaiquis (storytellers). ...Jemâa-el-Fna is a great melting pot of folk cultures where the Berber and gnawi traditions converge. The Berber tradition is characterized by songs and recitals in Tamazight, the language of the majority of Berbers, or in Soussi, the language of Berbers from the Agadir region. Performances range from love poems to elegies to works of moral and social criticism. Gnawi are the descendents of slaves who belonged to a popular confraternity. Their vast repertory includes invocations and prayers that are part of ritual trance ceremonies. Professor Hamid Hogadem has recently assembled recordings he has made of present-day halaiquis from the three traditions in a single volume, which will be soon be published with the support of UNESCO.

Juan Goytisolo, Jemâa-el-Fna’s thousand and one nights

“The variety of the region’s indigenous musical traditions (such as ahouach, amarg, ganga) come together during the festival of the Argan Tree [in Essaouira]. The Regraga to the north commemorate their discovery of Islam when, according to legend, they sent the famous seven men (sab’atu rijal) on a journey to Mecca to find out about the Prophet and his new religion through a major moussem (festival) that includes more than 40 days of storytelling and troubadour music (halqas, shikhates, and the aita).”

Dr. Anouar Majid, Tea and the Atlantic

South Africa

“Praise poems (isibongo) are composed by praise poets (iimbongi, singular imbongi, in Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu and Swati)) whenever an occasion arises or whenever there is something to recite an isibongo about. An imbongi can compose a praise poem about virtually anything. For example, there may be praise poems about people, animals, natural phenomena, important events (good or bad), life and death. ...One may find isibongo of censure, elegiac ones, besides ones of real praise. Isibongo are composed on the spur of the moment. ...An imbongi wears a special dress, usually animal skins, a hat called isidlokolo in Xhosa. A praise poet may be a special imbongi for a chief or king. The only qualification that one needs is expertise in praise singing.”

S.C. Satyo, International Dictionary of Literary Terms

“Praise poetry is a genre shared by all the peoples of Africa South of the Sahara, and probably by all human beings in the past. Forms of the imbongi, the praise singer, can even be traced back at least in written form to Ur-Nammu, the founder of the third dynasty of Ur [2060 B.C]. When a Sumer king is praised as a 'true off-spring engendered by a bull, speckled of head and body', as a 'mighty warrior born of a lion' the metaphors are similar to those we hear in the praises of Nelson Mandela ['When two bulls clash, with one a speckle-back beast, go round its hindquarters, to check its back is arched.'], as are other common devices of oral literature, i.e. linking, cross-linking, parallelism, cross-parallelism, anaphora, kenning etc.

Many of the stylistic features of these ancient songs can still be found in present day Sotho, Xhosa, Shona or Zulu praise songs. Physical power, courage and bravery are attributes highly valued. Even if 'the traditional praise-singer, the imbongi, is at work in the name of a new chief - the union.' and even if the subject of his song is nowadays often 'a metaphorical warrior in a metaphorical battle', the imbongi remains, he still 'writes with his spear'.”

Peter Horn, The 'imbongi' and the 'people's poet'

Resources

Zolani Mkiva - short article (and photo) about this imbongi who travelled the world as Nelson Mandela's presidential praise singer. A feature film was made about him - Mandela's Poet Laureate: Zolani Mkiva.

The 'imbongi' and the 'people's poet' - long article on the relationship between praise singers and South African politics. Many examples of the words of such praises, and various details of the tradition.

Swaziland

“Unlike West Africa, there are no professional storytellers or djelis in Swaziland or the surrounding region (Mozambique, South Africa etc). That is, it is usually the older people, men or women, who are respected and appreciated for their way of speaking and telling stories. But storytelling is an integral part of the educational process and children are told and taught stories from a very early age. Parents, relatives and adults in general tell stories to the young. The way this is done is simple but effective.

During my stay in M'babane, the capital city, I met an older woman who was studying Siswati and Kwazulu, praise chanting, but who of course also knew the traditions of her people and country. I visited this woman's home and her grandchildren were with her that day. She invited me to witness how they told and communicated stories. She would tell the story through, pausing after more or less lengthy phrasings, and then ask the children to repeat what they had just heard. At the end, the children are then asked to retell the entire story and were corrected for any errors. This is done until the story is learned sufficiently well. From what I could learn, music was not integrated into stories either, in the way it is again in West African society, although of course, music is omni-present on this side of the African continent. In particular, they have very proficient kalimba players.”

Sam Canarozzi, storyteller

Tanzania

“Legends tell of cultural heroes and important ancestors who were intelligent, courageous and generous. Young people learn about these illustrious ancestors through story telling. Among the Bahaya, the young groom researches his family history that has been preserved and passed down through legends and chooses an important ancestor that he will try to emulate and that will be his role model. In a very real sense, these ancestors participate and influence the lives of people today.”

“Among the Haya ...there is a standard opening formula before a narrative is told. The audience says, "See so that we may see", before the start of a folk tale.”

“Riddles are not just a form of entertainment, they play an important role in the social and cultural education of children. Riddles are also useful tools in children's cognitive development. They teach rules of behavior, explain and interpret natural phenomenon, and are a socially sanctioned avenue for questioning social taboos and restricted subjects. In the educational role, riddles provide a safe avenue for transmitting restricted information as well as intimate and vital knowledge. Among the Chagga, for example, elders explain that riddles are for entertainment, but they also point out that an adept at riddling acquires social respect and is considered a master in manipulating social knowledge.”

Tanzania Folklore, East African Living Encyclopedia

Resources

See So That We May See: Performances and Interpretations of Traditional Tales from Tanzania. Seitel, Peter. 1980. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.

Uganda

Part of Uganda was once a powerful royal kingdom called Buganda. As always with court life there was plenty of storytelling and praise singing.

“Various ensembles of musicians were retained by the kabaka (king) to provide music at different times during the day and for state ceremonies and receptions, as well as travelling throughout Buganda entertaining in villages. Flutes, lyres, harps, tube fiddles, xylophones, trumpets and drums provide the instrumental accompaniment to the singing, with its complex intonation structures.”

Martin Sinnock, Songlines #23, March/April 2004.

You grow up listening to stories. ...In Uganda, storytelling is part of the curriculum: Children are called to the head of the class to tell a story. ...I'm trying to revive the storytelling tradition, which has died with television.”

Professor Harriet Masembe, storyteller.

Resources

Music from Uganda 1: Traditional - CD from Caprice Records, CAP 21495, featuring various forms including 'dynamic storytelling troubadours ...from the royal kabaka court of the Baganda people'.

Songs and Stories from Uganda. 'This book/CD program consists of 13 traditional story songs with English narrative, work songs, games songs, and lullabies from the repertoire of W. Moses Serwadda, Ugandan musician, folklorist, and faculty member at Makarere University in Uganda. The book is handsomely illustrated with two-color woodcuts.'

The King's Musicians: Royalist Music of Buganda - Uganda, Topic Records TSCD 925 - CD of music, praise shouting, drumming, and story pieces, taken from the British Library Sound Archive. The detailed sleeve notes translate many song texts and explain the royal culture.

Resources

The World of Storytelling, by Anne Pellowski.

This book is a prime source of information on storytelling traditions around the world, and includes a useful multilingual dictionary of terms. The revised second edition has extra material. The book covers types of storytelling, including bardic, folk, religious, theatrical, library, and campfire; styles of telling, including gesture and voice, musical accompaniment, use of pictures and objects, openings and closings; the training of storytellers, including inherited positions, apprenticeships, and informal training. All these elements are compared and contrasted in cultures around the world, to give an excellent overview with lots of detail.

'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994. [Now available in a new revised edition.]

A very large and thorough celebration, by many experts, of the musical traditions and styles of the world. As noted in the introduction above, storytelling traditions are often intimately bound up with music, so this is also a treasure trove of hard-to-find and up-to-date information on the keepers of the oral tradition worldwide.

'The Singer of Tales', Lord, Albert Bates. 2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00283-0 (paperback). Also Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, Lord, Albert Bates. Cornell University Press 1991. ISBN 0-8014-9717-5 (paperback).

Academic studies of epic-singers, bardic storytellers, and the nature of the oral tradition, covering the Kalevala, South Slavic, Homeric, British, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Central Asiatic and Balkan epics. You can view on-line five video clips of a lecture by Lord on the themes of Performance and Performer: The Role of Tradition in Oral Epic Song, along with detailed text extracts from The Singer of Tales and The Singer Resumes the Tale, here.

'Traditional Epics', Guida M. Jackson. OUP 1994.

A huge book covering 1400 epics from all over the world - definitely the most comprehensive reference available, though the entries are mainly confined to the history and summary of the epics themselves rather than the traditions of telling them. Includes useful geographical, chronological, and genre indices, plus a long bibliography.

See the Cultural Traditions of Storytelling section of my storytelling web-links page for sites giving information on various specific places.

There is one place you can usually see oral tradition-bearers from various cultures around the world. Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival, in south Wales in early July each year, makes an effort to bring such people who are still practising ancient traditions of storytelling. Ashiks, griots and many more have graced the lush green fields of Wales, itself once the home to great Bards.

© Tim Sheppard 2003-4. Last updated 13/1/04.

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