Gordon Innes (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: Innes, Gordon. Introduction to Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions, pp. 1-33. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1974.
[In the following excerpt, Innes provides an overview of the Sunjata, including its transmission, audience, language, and present-day relevance.]
The three texts in this book are by three of The Gambia's leading bards, Bamba Suso, Banna Kanute and Dembo Kanute. A brief biographical note on each of these three bards will be found before the text which each has provided. The texts by Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute are included here as illustrative of the differences of both style and content which can occur between two performances of the ‘same’ epic. Dembo Kanute's text is an example of a narration which draws upon the Sunjata epic, but where the focus of interest is not Sunjata himself, but one of his generals.
Sunjata is generally regarded by historians as the founder of the Mali empire, one of a succession of empires which rose and fell in the Western Sudan in the Middle Ages. The historical evidence for the founding of the Mali empire is slight, consisting of some accounts by Arab chroniclers and of oral tradition. The three most important Arab sources are Ibn Fadl-Allāh al-‘Umarī, Ibn-Baṭṭūṭa and Ibn-Khaldūn; Ibn-Baṭṭūṭa travelled through Mali from February 1352 to December 1353 (Levtzion, 1963: 341). The date usually given by historians for Sunjata's defeat of his enemy Sumanguru is 1235. In the years following this victory Sunjata established his hegemony over a wide area, and his capital, Niani, became the richest city of the Western Sudan (Fage, 1955). The exact extent of Mali in its heyday is uncertain, but its heartland was the area lying between the rivers Niger and Senegal.
The three texts in this book purport to describe the career of Sunjata and some of his generals, culminating in eventual victory over Sunjata's great adversary, Sumanguru, and the establishment of Sunjata as master of a growing empire. But despite their subject matter these texts are not presented here as historical documentation. They may be of interest to historians, and I shall naturally be glad if historians do find them of some interest, but I believe that they should be regarded primarily as literary products. They are presented here, then, as pieces of oral literature, and it is suggested that they be judged as literature. Then the question whether the incidents which they describe ever in fact took place or not is hardly relevant. If historians or archaeologists find confirmation from other sources for some parts of these texts, that is indeed of interest, but these texts are not to be judged by the extent to which they appear to historians to embody historical fact. Though I would not of course suggest that these texts are comparable in literary achievement with Homer's poems, it is relevant to mention these latter here. Our judgement of these as literary masterpieces is in no way affected by recent archaeological evidence; our estimate of the Iliad as a work of art did not rise when archaeological evidence came to light supporting Homer's account of a war before the gates of Troy.
The Sunjata epic is found not only among the Mandinka of The Gambia, where these three texts were recorded, but is the common property of all the Manding people. (The name Manding is given to what was formerly regarded as a group of closely related languages—Malinke-Bambara-Dyula in Westermann and Bryan, 1952—but which is now regarded as one language with several regional varieties; the Manding people are those who speak Manding. The word ‘Manding’ is a variant of ‘Mali’.) The Manding people are scattered over a very wide area of West Africa, especially in Guinea, Upper Volta, Mali, Senegal and The Gambia. The Sunjata epic is an important factor in maintaining among these widely dispersed peoples a feeling of common origin. All regard themselves as coming from mediaeval Mali (or Manding, as it is called in Mandinka), and most of the leading families throughout the area trace descent from Sunjata himself or from one of his generals. The Sunjata epic and the constant movement within the Manding area of those bards who relate it play an important part in maintaining the cultural homogeneity of the Manding people over such a wide area.
The transmission of the Sunjata epic is confined to a group of hereditary full-time professional bards. In West Africa these are generally known as griots, a French word of uncertain etymology widely used throughout West Africa, and this term will be used here. This section is confined to a brief description of some aspects of the griots and their art among the Gambian Mandinka, but for a much more detailed description of the role of the griots among the Bambara, see Zahan (1963: 125-48).
As well as freemen, and, formerly, slaves, Mandinka society had hereditary artisan groups, usually known as castes, though some anthropologists disapprove of this use of the term. There is a caste of workers in leather, a caste of workers in metal and a caste of workers in words and music, namely the griots. The castes are endogamous, and in earlier times marriage between a freeman or freewoman and a caste member was strictly prohibited. Even today in The Gambia such unions are not common and are disapproved of, especially by the older people.
Griots are often spoken of as if they were a homogeneous group, but this is not the case. Within the griot caste, griots fall into different groups according to their specialization. Griots are not free to decide to which specialist group they will belong; this is determined by birth. Some families belong to one group, some to another. The most prestigious kind of griot (jalo) is the one who is well versed in political history and in the royal genealogies and praise names. Such griots are accompanied on the kora, a twenty-one-stringed harp-lute, or on the balo, a xylophone with gourd resonators fixed underneath the keys, or on the kontingo, a small three-stringed plucked lute. In The Gambia there is only one family which plays the xylophone; the others play the kora, or, less commonly, the kontingo.
The general term jalo ‘griot’ is qualified by a preceding word to denote various specializations. The danna jalo ‘hunters' griot’ is associated with hunters. He specializes in praise songs for hunters and in tales about the exploits of great hunters, often in pursuit of fabulous beasts. He is often versed in the various magical preparations used by hunters and he may make and sell these, not as an aid in the pursuit of game, but in the pursuit of women. He is also skilled in the prophylactic songs which have to be sung to protect hunters from the spirits of animals which they have killed. Nowadays hunting is of little economic importance and the danna jalo is mainly an itinerant entertainer. In 1969 I recorded two performances by a hunters' griot from Casamance when he was visiting The Gambia. His performances involved a dramatization of long accounts of the pursuit of fabulous beasts, with himself playing the parts of the different characters. He accompanied himself on the simbingo, an instrument similar to the kora, but smaller and with a curved neck, and he was supported by a chorus of women who sang the refrains of the songs. A performance by a danna jalo is a light-hearted event, with the emphasis very much on entertainment.
The mbo jalo comes at the bottom of the hierarchy of griots. He is merely a light entertainer. He sings, tells stories, dances and keeps his audience amused with a kind of non-stop one-man music hall act. He is not attached to any patron, but is a freelance artist who travels around giving performances. He is usually accompanied by three drummers.
Perhaps also to be mentioned here is the seruba jalo; this phrase formerly denoted a member of the griot caste, but now refers to what mary be called a pop musician, often not a caste member. These musicians form groups consisting of a singer and three drummers, who play for dances. The singer leads the singing and the dancing, and the success of the occasion largely depends on him. He may compose a song which catches on and has a great local vogue for a few months, till it is replaced by the latest hit.
It is to be noticed that in many ways comparable to the jalolu ‘griots’ are the finolu (sg. fino). Whereas a jalo ‘griot’ attended upon a king, and a danno jalo ‘hunters' griot’ attended upon hunters, a fino attends upon a sherif, that is, a Moslem scholar who traces his descent from the Prophet or from a Companion of the Prophet. A fino is well versed not only in the family history of his sherif but also in the Koran and in Islam generally. A fino's performance is usually of a homilitic nature, concerned with proper behaviour and supported by copious quotations from the Koran. A fino generally performs to the accompaniment of a small drum.
When we speak of ‘griots’ it is normally members of the first group that we have in mind, that is, those griots who attended upon kings. In The Gambia there are many accounts told of the careers of leading warriors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and these historical narratives form the stock in trade of Gambian griots. The griots are well versed in the history of the family with which they are associated and of other important families in the area. Griots have specialized knowledge of particular families; such knowledge is localized and a Gambian griot would know about Gambian families and about the religious wars which raged along the Gambia valley in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but would have no knowledge of comparable matters in, say, Guinea or Upper Volta. But there is one body of tradition which is the common property of griots throughout the whole Manding area, and that is the Sunjata story. There is of course a link between the Sunjata story and local histories, since most of the leading families of The Gambia, as elsewhere in the Manding area, trace their descent from the principal characters in that story. Some of these relationships are described by Bamba Suso in the text presented here.
In pre-colonial times the valley of the River Gambia was divided up into a number of independent states, each with its mansa ‘king’ at its head. Traditionally each family of freemen had its associated griot family, and those griots who attended upon a mansa were at the very top of their profession. Today there are of course no mansas, but the term mansa jalo ‘royal griot, court griot’ is used at the present day in The Gambia to denote a griot of the highest professional skill, a griot such as might have attended upon a king in the old days. The accolade of mansa jalo is given by many to Bamba Suso, one of the griots whose work is represented here.
A griot family was supported by its patron family, and a griot was not called upon to do any other work. With the coming of colonialism, however, the patron families could no longer support their associated griot families, and the griots were forced to look elsewhere for their livelihood. Patron families and griot families are still well aware of the special ties between them, but the patrons are no longer in a financial position where they can sustain the burden of maintaining their griots. Nowadays all that the patrons can usually manage is an occasional gift. The griots were thus forced to fend for themselves and they now rely mostly on making money at various occasions like weddings and child naming. At such occasions the griots confine themselves largely to praise singing in honour of the principal parties concerned and also of any other persons present who they think will reward them for their attentions. As well as waiting for appropriate social events, griots will often go to a man's compound and announce that they wish to play for him. Such attention from griots often proves embarrassing, for the object of it cannot refuse or give too small a sum without laying himself open to the risk of being publicly humiliated by the griot's ridicule. So people often feel obliged to give a griot far more than they would like, or than they feel that they can reasonably afford. This has not unnaturally given rise to a certain amount of public feeling against griots.
The changed social situation has involved not only a change in the way in which the griots are sustained but also in the nature of the griots' performance. Formerly, a griot would entertain his host with an account of the host's family history, probably beginning with an account of those ancestors who figure in the Sunjata epic and then moving on to more recent times. Such a performance, for his patron and for other men of the family would be a leisurely affair in which the griot could spread himself for an audience delighted to listen to the exploits of their ancestors. But nowadays the griot performs mostly on occasions like weddings when the audience does not want to sit and listen to long historical accounts. At these events, the griots usually confine themselves to singing songs and reciting praises. The griot adds to the general festivities, and it is widely felt that it is appropriate to have a griot on hand to sing praises at such gatherings, but a long historical account would be quite inappropriate to the occasion. There is good evidence that griots generally are concentrating on songs and praises, and it seems likely that younger griots will have much less opportunity for historical narration. Indeed it is doubtful if some of them would have the requisite knowledge even if they had the opportunity. The griot's public has changed; he no longer addresses himself mainly to an audience of elderly aristocrats but to social gatherings of ordinary people, and the new audience demands a rather different product, though it would be wrong to give the impression here that there is no interest in the old historical narratives. They still have a powerful appeal and reach a wide audience through Radio Gambia. The shrewder of the griots are well aware of these changes, and one griot, Banna Kanute, told me that if he had a son he would have him trained in Western music instead of training him in the griot's craft. Banna is doubtless aware of the stiff competition which the griot faces from European and American pop music, which is listened to with such avidity on their transistor radios by the youth of The Gambia like the youth elsewhere.
Broadcasting has had a considerable impact on many Gambian griots. For one thing, many of them look hopefully to Radio Gambia as a patron, and the three griots whose work is presented here are no strangers to recording studios. But whereas in the old days a griot could go on relating the Sunjata epic and the other items in his repertoire for a lifetime, he can only record an item once and collect one fee for it from a radio station. Hence the more astute griots like Banna Kanute have developed programmes of general observations on life, of comment on current events etc., and a man with Banna's ready fluency can sustain indefinitely a programme of this nature. Though Gambian griots operate in the oral mode, it would be a mistake to think of them as maintaining a pure oral tradition which has continued unchanged for centuries. This was probably never true, since griots were presumably always affected by changes in the political context in which they operated, and though themselves illiterate, they may well have been influenced by literacy. It must not be forgotten that Islam, which is a religion of the written word, has flourished in parts of the Manding area for centuries. What is perhaps different today is that the pace of social change is faster, and griots are having to adapt to changed conditions rather rapidly. Some of the ways in which they are adapting to the new conditions have been mentioned, but it should be added that some members of griot families are making a much more fundamental change from the old way of life and are simply not practising as griots. A number have become traders, and one young Gambian of griot stock is now a schoolmaster.
The training of a griot begins in boyhood, and like other craft training it takes place within the family. A griot boy will normally be trained by his father or by an older brother. Banna Kanute, for example, was trained by his older brother Dembo, under the general supervision of their father, who had trained Dembo. After a young griot has attained some proficiency, he will spend a lot of time going around with his father or older brother or other experienced griot and listening to his performance. The learner may contribute to the performance, perhaps just by playing his instrument, but perhaps also by taking some part in the narration, such as singing some songs or reciting some of the praises. For griots, learning their craft is a continuing process, since griots travel extensively and hear other griots performing. Banna told me that if he came across a griot whose narration he liked, he would stay with that griot for some months till he had learnt it. But in the case of the Sunjata epic, it seems probable that a griot like Banna would not learn the whole of another griot's version and then reproduce it more or less faithfully. It seems more likely that what happens is that a griot hears many different versions and takes from them any parts that he thinks he can incorporate into his own version so as to improve it, though how a griot judges what constitutes such an improvement is a difficult question which cannot be pursued here. I should judge that in Banna's view, what is sought are incidents which will make the version more entertaining, more interesting to the audience. It must always be remembered that a griot must hold his audience's attention. He must entertain his audience and maintain them in an appreciative mood, which, he hopes, will be reflected by the generosity of their contributions.
It sometimes happens that a griot from outside The Gambia comes and settles in that country. He will not know the local history, so he will have to attach himself to a Gambian griot from whom he can learn the histories of the local families. This was the case with Amadu Jebate, a griot from Casamance, not to be confused with the griot of the same name who accompanied Bamba Suso when he recorded the text which is presented here. Amadu had decided to settle in The Gambia, and when I met him he was living in the compound of Bamba Suso's son in Serrekunda. He travelled around with Bamba's son, often providing the musical accompaniment, and he had learnt a great deal of local history from listening to Bamba's son's performances. When I made recordings of them they were both together, and Bamba's son recorded some material on Gambian history, but Amadu confined himself to items which had been in his repertoire before he came to live in The Gambia.
On the subject of griots' training, a word must be said here about a curious belief which has gained currency among some scholars, especially American, that there are griot training centres in The Gambia. Sotuma is often spoken of as such a centre. The belief is that there are training centres to which griots go to further their education and to which they return from time to time for further instruction in their craft, rather, it appears, as graduates might return to University for a post-graduate course. This is a total misconception of the situation. What seems to have given rise to this belief is the fact that in The Gambia there are a few villages which are commonly known as griots' villages, where there is a high proportion of griot families. Sotuma is one such village, and Boraba near Georgetown is another. The reason for the concentration of griot families in these villages is not clear, but it is probably no coincidence that Boraba is only a few miles from Kesserkunda, the town where Musa Molo lived and where he is buried. Musa Molo was a powerful mansa ‘king’ who carved out for himself a large territory in Casamance and the Gambia valley, and whose court may well have attracted a large number of griots. He died in 1931.
During the dry season, griots travel extensively, but in the wet season they return to their home villages. There are two reasons for this; firstly, people are too busy farming during the rains to have any time to spend listening to griots, and secondly, the griots return home to supervise the farming activities of their own families. Hence griots from villages like Sotuma and Boraba who have spent the dry season travelling throughout The Gambia and further afield return to their villages at the beginning of the rains, but it is quite wrong to think that they are assembling there for further training. It is simply that they have their homes there, and that they spend the rainy season at home.
It says much for the professional competence of griots that they can still give a reasonable performance when they find themselves asked to perform in the alien environment of a recording studio, addressing a microphone. But apart from recording sessions, a narration of the Sunjata epic demands not only a griot to relate it but also an audience to listen to it. In considering the transmission of the epic, therefore, some account needs to be taken of those who listen to it as well as those who relate it. After all, if nobody listened, the epic would not survive for long.
It was pointed out above that the griots are not a homogeneous body, and this is certainly true of their audiences. Although we have it on good authority that a wind of change is blowing in Africa, many people who have not had any contact with African societies still tend to think of them as stable, homogeneous societies with relatively little differentiation within them. This is mistaken, certainly as far as the Mandinka of The Gambia are concerned. Even within that numerically small society there are university graduates as well as illiterates, wealthy businessmen as well as poor farmers, men who feel at home in the great cities of Europe and America as well as men who rarely leave their own village, and of course the generation gap is a phenomenon familiar in The Gambia as well as elsewhere. The young man with his ear glued to his transistor radio for the latest pop songs has different musical tastes from his elders. Hence any generalizations about the griots' audience is difficult and open to contradiction, but this is not sufficient justification for avoiding all consideration of such an important component of the situation in which historical narratives are related.
In pre-colonial times a mansa jalo ‘court griot’ would entertain his patron and other members of the kingly house with accounts of the careers of their ancestors, and since one of these ancestors would probably be Sunjata or one of his generals, such accounts usually involve at least some reference to the Sunjata epic though not necessarily a full account of Sunjata's career. In fact the reference to the Sunjata epic may be quite brief; often it seems enough just to establish a link with one of the heroes of the Sunjata age, without going into the hero's career in any detail. A griot may concentrate on his patron's more recent ancestors.
As well as being an expert on his patron's family history, a griot was also employed on occasion as an emissary to conduct negotiations on his master's behalf. It is said that griots were commonly used as intermediaries between warring kings; they could pass freely through enemy territory, for the person of a griot was inviolable. To kill or even ill treat a griot was regarded as a particularly heinous crime. Even today, griots are employed in delicate negotiations where skill in the use of language is required, as in marriage negotiations.
It has been said by several scholars that griots were advisers to the king and that they could speak to him with greater frankness than could freemen. The suggestion is that with their store of historical knowledge, griots could give guidance to a king, and had freedom to speak plainly to him when they thought that he was acting unwisely. It is not clear what the evidence is for these statements, and it is of course difficult to know what the position of the griot vis-à-vis his master was in former times. My own feeling is that it is unlikely that in the states along the Gambia valley griots were consulted by their masters and their advice sought. The king would have consulted the various family heads, who usually sat with him, and not his griots. It is unlikely that griots would have voiced any open criticism of their master either to his face or behind his back. Among the Mandinka, direct adverse comment is normally avoided by the use of veiled speech or of proverbs or of special songs (see Innes, 1972). It is likely that a griot made his views known in a much more subtle fashion, in keeping with normal Mandinka practice, and this view is supported by the behavior of the griot of the late Cherno Bande, a chief who sought quite deliberately to live as far as possible in the style of a mansa. Here it must be remembered that Musa Molo, a powerful mansa, died as recently as 1931, so Cherno Bande, his son, knew well the style of life which he took as his model. According to Bakari Sidibe, who in his youth frequently visited Cherno, who lived in Sankulikunda, on the south bank opposite Georgetown, Cherno used to discuss matters with his court, and throughout these deliberations a griot would sit on a mat nearby, playing quietly. From time to time the griot would utter an exclamation such as Jata! ‘Lion!’, I toonya la! ‘You are right!’, or some longer exclamation to indicate his approval of a remark that had been made. To express agreement and to strengthen the chief's resolve, the griot would play fast and loud for a minute or two. There is some evidence that if a griot thought that a king was not living up to the ideals of kingly behaviour, he would narrate a passage or two describing how the king's ancestors had behaved, thus rather subtly reminding the king of the manner in which he was expected to behave. Mr Sidibe reports that, as far as he knows, Cherno Bande's griots never made a direct statement of opinion, and were never directly consulted.
Whatever the historical details may be, it can hardly be in dispute that the Sunjata epic has existed in one form or another for a long time, and while it may serve a number of utilitarian purposes such as supporting claims to kingship, to land, etc., its continued existence over a long period of time surely argues for its fulfilling some deep emotional need among the Manding people. Certainly a narration of the Sunjata epic by a master griot can be a deeply moving experience for a Mandinka audience, and especially perhaps for the mature male members of the audience. Bowra's remarks on the characteristics of heroic poetry seem highly appropriate to the Sunjata epic: ‘Heroic poetry is inspired by the belief that the honour which men pay to some of their fellows is owed to a real superiority in natural endowments. But of course it is not enough for a man to possess superior qualities; he must realize them in action. In the ordeals of heroic life his full worth is tested and revealed … He gives dignity to the human race by showing of what feats he is capable; he extends the bounds of experience for others and enhances their appreciation of man's ambition to pass beyond the oppressive limits of human frailty to a fuller and more vivid life, to win as far as possible a self-sufficient manhood, which refuses to admit that anything is too difficult for it, and is content, even in failure, provided that it has made every effort of which it is capable’ (Bowra, 1952: 4).
When I was discussing with Mr Sidibe the reason that people listen to the Sunjata epic, he replied in terms strikingly similar to those of Bowra. Though Sunjata is undoubtedly stronger and braver than we are, he is nevertheless a human being like ourselves. The qualities which he has are the qualities which we ourselves have, in however diminished a form. Sunjata shows us of what a man is capable. Even if we could never aspire to equal the deeds of Sunjata, nevertheless we feel our stature as men is enhanced by the knowledge of what a man like Sunjata could achieve. Before a battle, a griot would narrate the Sunjata epic to the king and his followers. This narration encouraged the listeners to excel themselves when battle was joined, not so much by inspiring them to emulate Sunjata, but by making them feel that they were capable of greater things than they had previously thought possible. By reminding them of what Sunjata could do, it raised their estimate of what they themselves could do. Mr Sidibe said that listening to the Sunjata epic not only gives a man a feeling of intense pride, but also makes him look at his own life—what has he achieved, has he acquitted himself in a way befitting a man in his position, has he enhanced the family name, or at any rate not diminished it?
The behaviour of the audience listening to a griot relate the Sunjata epic is different from that of an audience listening to fictional tales. In the latter case, members of the audience will utter exclamations from time to time to encourage the narrator. Indeed, an expert story-teller will have a friend in the audience who will utter ‘Namu!’ or some other expression of approval and support after virtually every sentence. And the whole audience will of course sing the refrains of the songs which occur in so many tales. In contrast to this, an audience listening to a griot recounting a historical narrative listens in silence, without interjection or interruption of any kind. The audience is not expected to remain passive, however; what the griot expects is that members of the audience will come forward with gifts of money during the performance. Friends and relatives of the griot's host are expected to step forward with their contributions, and they give these to the griot without any interruption of his performance. Sometimes a certain element of competition develops among members of the audience, as some men seek to display their wealth by the size of the gift they give to the griot. A griot at such a performance will rehearse the praises of certain members of the audience, and a man who is the object of such attention is obliged to give the griot an appropriate reward. This often puts a man in a difficult position, for he does not want to give away money he can ill afford, but if he gives too...
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