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Kora Music & Griots in Gambia
Culture & Traditions   Music   Traditional  |  Musicians      
KoraThere are 2 kinds of Gambian Griots in West Africa: One that sings and another that plays the Kora (Cora) musical instrument.

The first reference to the Kora was made by Mungo Park in his 1799 book describing his trips in West Africa. It can be described as an African harp held vertically between one's legs when played.

This is the musical instrument that has a range of over three octaves, the enchanting music of the Kora is multi-layered and melodic.  It accompanies the Jalis (Griots pronounced gree-oh) who are praise singers of the Mandinka Tribe (Mande  / Malinke) have a tradition going back hundreds of years. A master griot often has no need for verbal accompaniment and uses a technique known as birimintingo to "talk to the Kora."

In the past, the role of the professional musician was reserved for those born into the griot caste.  It is sometimes part of an ensemble which includes the Balafon (a type of wood xylophone). Their unique role as praise Bolonbatasingers is passed, after a long apprenticeship,  usually from father to son though it can be passed from an uncle. It requires many years of musical and historic training for a student to become a master Kora player and to be able to recite the religious, ethnic and family lineages.

The Bolonbata  (also known a the kontingo by the Mandinka and as the halam or xalam by the Wolof) is a variation of the Kora with at most 5 strings and has a bent neck made of Keno wood and a small gourd body resonator that is encased in leather. This instrument is played just by the Fulanis and Mandingo people in Gambia.

Griots have long been respected for the power of their music can carry. Although the role of the griot has diminished with the evolution of contemporary society and the passage of time, the griot still remains an integral part of the culture of Gambia and the strongest link to centuries of history. For centuries, court musicians and ‘griots’ (story-tellers) have kept alive tales of family and village history, and you may find them singing their oral accounts and stories accompanied by a ‘Kora’. This tradition gives the Mandinka people their strong sense of ethnic identity and history. Griots have long been respected for the power of their music can narrate over.

Although the role of the griot has diminished with the evolution of contemporary society and the passage of time, the griot still remains an integral part of the culture of The Gambia and the strongest link to centuries of history.  They sometimes belong to the household of a nobleman, appointed to sing the virtues of their benefactor and master. However, most are independent, singing the praises of anyone who can pay them and a less generous clientele might find the song more critical than giving praise. Because of their deep knowledge of history they are often viewed with a mixture of fear and admiration. But the griots of Gambia continue to maintain the traditions of their people for the generations to come.

  Declining Influence:
In the l9th century the religious Soninke-Marabout Wars and colonial influence caused the break-up of ruling noble families. The Europeans appointed chiefs who often had no connection to the traditional ruling houses. Thus, with prestige and power usurped by the new chiefs and their resources drained by a French-imposed tax system, the traditional noble patrons could no longer care for their griots. Many griots were forced to adopt several patrons, and others became itinerant freelance musicians. The griots' new role became more that of an entertainer and musician and less that of a genealogist and historian.

The role of the griot is more than just a story-teller. He or she is a genealogists, singer, deliverer of social or diplomatic messages, war rouser, general joke telling and buffoonery and is highly prized at tribal celebrations. The belong in one of the lower castes however, their musically talented role which accompanies the oral tradition is well respected and as a result many make a very good living from their social role. They still exist today, although the role of the musician is no longer held by the griots exclusively. The Gambian griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel. This living archive of speech and song maintains oral traditions, both local and epic. They are taught by their elders and are trained over many years to learn the enormous quantity of traditional songs and to master the melodies and rhythms. He might be required to sing seven generations worth of a tribe's or family's history and, in some areas, to be completely familiar with the songs of ritual necessary to summon spirits and gain the sympathy of ancestors.

Because of the low caste of the griot in some sections of West Africa, they have been denied an earth burial and their remains were placed in Baobab trees instead for fear that they would make the ground impure and shorn or fertility. Today, such discrimination is illegal.

Famous Gambian Griots:
Some famous names include: Foday Musa Suso, Bai Konte, Papa Susso, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh and Doudou M’Boob. The most legendary being Balafasé Kouyate who was the personal griot of great Mandinka leader Sundiata Keita (also spelt Keyita).

Griots and Modern Music:
Perhaps the most important traditional function of griots seen from the perspective of modern Gambia is their role as performing artists. In most cases, griots were the sole musicians and storytellers. Among the exceptions to this rule are noble Fulbe shepherd musicians, who play the riiti (one-string violin) and the flute, as well as noble Fulbe and Bamana hunters in Mali, who play the hunter ngoni, a five- to six- string harp-like instrument, and sing. Fulbe society, which is nomadic and ranges much further than any of the other societies in Gambia, seems to have borrowed the caste structure and possibly even the ñeeño people themselves from other Gambian groups and can therefore be expected not to have exactly the same musical taboos.

Still, although certain groups of non-griots traditionally practice music, it is only recently that they have begun to move, against vehement social resistance, into the professional music scene. Despite certain noble non-professional musical traditions, griots were for a long time the only professional instrumentalists, singers, or dancers in most of Gambia, Mali, and neighbouring areas. In Mande societies, nobles could perform musically in extremely limited and usually ritual contexts, while in Wolof society noble men could apparently not perform any music at all and women could sing in only a few circumstances. Noble men believed that music was a feminine element that would drain their powers to work the land or fight. Griots were banned from both farming and fighting.


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