The Washington Post has an interesting and well-written article this week by Emily Wax, titled “Shunning Griot Customs, Senegalese Youth Give Storytelling a New Spin---Hip-Hop's Inroads Reflected in Focus On Current Events.” The article profiles a new generation of griot musicians in Dakar, Senegal. These new artists blend traditional storytelling with Western rap, jazz, modern instruments and contemporary social and political themes:
Their parents and grandparents were venerated storytellers, wandering poets known as griots who sang praises to kings, crooned family histories at weddings and delivered anti-colonial epics at political rallies.The article describes the discomfort of traditionalists over this new form---isn’t it always that way? Of course that tension between the old and the new is at the root of many artistic advances, not only in music:
But these days, two Senegalese brothers who hail from griot lineage are not at all interested in inheriting what they see as an outdated role in an old West African tradition.
They are, however, really into hip-hop music.
The brothers practice their blend of hip-hop and traditional Senegalese drumming in the courtyard of a brightly painted hotel, not far from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The giant group house is filled with young Africans from griot and other lineage who aspire to be fashion designers rather than farmers, painters and poets rather than peasants.Many African artists are embracing the new forms, and it will be interesting to see how lasting the new influences are within the griot tradition:
Before written language, the griot was the keeper of history. Grandfathers would pass the craft to their sons and grandchildren. Important dates, intricate names and famous deeds involving not just their families but entire villages and kingdoms were remembered in song.
The inherited position brought great respect in rigidly hierarchical societies, and members of the griot caste often received land, money and protection for their services.
But as more people have migrated to the cities, young West Africans living in a world with the Internet, satellite television and hip-hop videos beaming in every bar and middle-class household have begun to question old traditions. And today, anyone with a guitar, some decent lyrics and access to a microphone is allowed to perform.
At first, the elders lamented the change. Newspaper columnists predicted the demise of the griot, and women even held mock funerals, holding up effigies of withered griot women.
But as the old style has faded, a new and fresh griot has emerged, and a renaissance in the art form has taken place.
Young griots still sing family histories, but they also write about contemporary issues that the older generations have avoided, mixing hip-hop, jazz, rock and village music with lyrics about HIV, marrying outside caste and homosexuality.
"I understand the young people don't want to completely copy us," said BMS's father, Souleymane Sarr, 63, who has performed his entire life. "But they shouldn't throw away their culture altogether and just copy American rap music. We hope some middle ground emerges."
But as more young griots find themselves more comfortable at the turntable than in the town hall, some Senegalese have wondered if they should adjust a little, too.
"You can no longer keep the world out of Africa; that is too narrow-minded. But will griots die out? Of course not," said Bruce Onobrakpeya, 72, known as the father of Nigeria's modern art movement. "To me, a new form of griots is emerging that is truly exciting."
"The world is changing, and so are we, and so are griots, he said. "That's not just okay, but it's wonderful."