Traditionally, oral poetry was produced by specialized, trained poets who were connected to kings, chiefs, spiritual figures, or secret societies. In addition, certain groups, such as hunters, farmers, cattle herders, and warriors, had designated poets. Oral poets were often descended from family lineages. A large body of oral poems from Africa has been recorded, translated, and published. Traditional oral poets recited in indigenous languages, such as Hausa, Yoruba, Ewe, Kongo, Igbo, Mandika, Fulani, Wolof, Zulu, Tswana, Gikuyu, and Swahili. Performance artistry—memorization, improvisation, and gesture—and audience response are part of the oral presentation, which has social and cultural significance. The oral poet who recites well-known pieces can introduce self-inspired innovations.
Used to honor and criticize, the most widely discussed form of oral poetry is the praise poem, generally associated with royal courts but also applicable to other social strata. Praise poetry is designated by such names as oriki (Yoruba), maboko (Tswana), izibongo (Zulu), and ijala, poetry of professional Yoruba hunters. Among the Akan, women are known for their proficiency in the funeral dirge. Usually, the praise poem of the court poet rendered historical lineage and stressed positive characteristics, but a poem of this nature could also remind the celebrated figure of responsibilities to the community. A “freelance” oral poet can offer praise and possibly criticism of individuals of lesser status. There are a number of names for oral poets: griot (Mandinka), kwadwumfo (Asante), imbongi (southern Africa), azmaris (Ethiopia), and umusizi (central Africa). The umusizi of Rwanda recited at ceremonial occasions such as births, initiations, and funerals. The spiritual role of certain oral poets is exemplified by the Yoruba babalawo, whose verse is distinctly musical. Yoruba Ifa divination, associated with the Ifa oracle, is expressed in verses. Among the forms of oral poetry, which can be accompanied by drums and stringed instruments, are elegies, lyrics, political pieces, and children’s songs. In addition, such African epics as Sundjata (Gambia) and The Epic of Liyongo (Kenya) display oral influences. Though the authorship of older oral poetry is often unknown, certain individuals have been recognized, such as the eighteenth century Somali poet Ugaas Raage.