A poet, singer, historian, musician, comedian, an entertainer, an archive. The griot is all these things and more. Through storytelling and music, the griot has shared and maintained the identities and histories of communities in West Africa for centuries. Oral culture on the African continent has persisted when elsewhere in the world it has all but vanished. But with shifting populations and the rise of digital entertainment, who will continue to weave these stories around the fireside, and who will be there to listen?
By Alicia Mitchell
The oral traditions of West Africa have long been recognised around the world as a powerful tool for communication. In the United States, studies of griot culture have provided the African Diaspora with a way to reach back and carry forward their ancestral heritage. Projects have been set up to encourage young people to learn about and take on the role of griots in their own communities. However, in Africa, writes Buchi Offodile in the preface to his collection of African folktales, “the traditional moonlight storytelling culture of the agrarian society . . . has all but disappeared. In its place, a more urban western-type society has taken root”.[i]
But are these traditions associated with rural life at risk of being lost to the past? The obvious ways to translate the storytelling culture for consumption by a modern audience – recording and transcribing – risk losing the fluid spontaneity which distinguishes oral culture: an essential skill for any griot is to be able to respond incisively and with wit to any situation. If you remove the performative element and the potential for interaction with both the surroundings and audience, then the magic of the moment is lost.
However, this is not a clear-cut battle of tradition versus modernity, in which the winner takes all. There are innovations within technology and thinking that create space for the co-existence of the two. If we interpret some key elements of oral culture as its focus on local context and its inherent interactivity, there are many ways in which modern technologies can encourage, rather than eclipse, the griot values.
A ubiquitous example of this can be found in contemporary rap music. Speaking to the BBC in 2004, Faada Freddy, of the Senegalese rap group Daara J, described rappers as today’s “modern griots”, serving as the “cameras of society”.[ii] Focusing on personal experiences, local issues and the struggles and successes of daily life and combining prepared verse with improvised commentary, the links between rap and griot styles are abundant.
When once the griot might travel on foot for many miles to share the stories of his king or community, now ICT enables local stories to be shared with the whole world online. In the past decade we have witnessed a revolution in home-grown broadcasting, with high-quality sound and video recording devices included in even basic mobile phones, and websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter allowing young people to share their creative output and perform on the global stage of the Internet.
A modern interpretation of the interactivity of oral culture can be found in the rise of ‘digital storytelling’, which takes advantage of the unique qualities of recorded images, film, sound and text to explore ways in which people can find a voice through digital media.
With its origins in simple narrated slide shows or videos, digital storytelling has progressed to include fully interactive and participatory projects which embrace non-linear and experimental forms of storytelling.
What’s more, creating digital stories is widely accessible to many people, working with low-tech devices and free-to-use software. With just a mobile phone or entry-level computer, it is possible for anyone to compose, design and share their life events in a unique and engaging way. This democratised access has the potential to empower marginalised groups, giving people a public voice when before they had none.
Taking this a step further, we find projects such as the Ulwazi Programme, a community-owned database based in Durban, South Africa. The Ulwazi programme documents and disseminates indigenous knowledge, including “traditional celebrations, traditional clothing, Zulu proverbs, traditional folk tales, the use of spiritual herbs and traditional agricultural methods”, using text, photos and film as well as through online games and an interactive ‘Heritage Map’.[iii]
As a collaborative project, compiled by local people and populated with the stories of their lives and heritage, this is a kind of participatory storytelling that would never have been possible without the use of ICT.
Rather than writing them down and filing them away in a static archive, ICT enables us to create, share and celebrate stories new and old. Our interest in storytelling is unlikely to go away and, hopefully, griot traditions will be able to survive, prosper and inspire alongside new modes of storytelling, and with a little innovation and imagination, new traditions will be born.
[i] Offodile, Buchi. The Orphan Girl and Other Stories: West African Folk Tales. New York: Interlink 2001.
[iii] McNulty, Niall. ICTs for Indigenous Knowledge Preservation. ICT Update. December 2009. Issue 69. http://www.mcnulty.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/ICT_69_CASE2_ENG.pdf