Griots, these itinerant musicians, almost born professionals – they belong to a caste – who go from village to royal court singing the praises of a lineage and its descendants, are a feature of many traditional societies in West Africa.
Their existence is attested to by the accounts of the first travellers in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The griots play a special social role, as they are not subject to any prohibitions. Indeed, they are the only ones who can tell the powerful what the people think of them.
Griots more often sing the praises of their employers, recalling the deeds of their ancestors through epic tales, transmitted orally from generation to generation, and playing the role of counsellor.
They are accompanied by their musical instrument.
Today, this role has evolved, but griots continue to find their place in modern life. Some become famous, others go around the neighbourhood, especially on the occasion of a party. Many singers and musicians with a commercial career recall that they come from a line of griots, even if their activity has strayed from tradition.
Music and dance
Africa rhymes with music. However, one should not expect to travel across the continent to the rhythm of this music, which is praised in the slightest report. These dances and songs, which immediately evoke Africa in our minds, are only performed during very specific ceremonies or at the mercantile incitement of a few tourist organisations.
However, it often happens that, at nightfall, in the village square, in the middle of shops, people dance to the sound of the djembe and the balafon, typical instruments, or listen to the griot who, accompanied by his kora (whose musicality reminds one of the harp), sings the feats of this or that family, especially in Mali.
Music is as important a part of society as religion and has a very special place in society. Very exuberant and festive, it draws its melodious roots from ancestral traditions. Both in the choice of instruments and in the lyrics and subjects of the songs.
You have to speak in the plural of music. Each one is a dialect, and each instrument is tuned to its own dialect: two musicians from neighbouring villages may not necessarily be able to play together. The instrument translates the intonations, the tones, the sounds of the language. Everything is instrument, including throat voices, pinched nose, resonant blows on the leg or belly.
Music, like dance, translates the complete communion of man and nature. It also serves to convey messages.
The musical instrument has a symbolic value everywhere: for all those present, it represents their cosmogony, or the sexual act, or childbirth, or life, and everyone recognises the value of each detail as well as its deep meaning.
The music is not confined to the bush or to traditional rhythms. In the big cities, people celebrated independence to rhythms from Cuba (especially merengue). These continue to electrify nightclubs. The instruments and sounds of Black America, or those propagated by world music, were also very successful, as were reggae and coupé-décalé, a festive and very rhythmic dance music, born in the nightclubs of Abidjan before spreading throughout French-speaking Africa.
Each country also has its share of popular singers whose texts, often very didactic, can confuse Western ears more accustomed to metaphors and convoluted formulas. Whether it deals with love, politics or contraception (on the continent, music is often used as an educational tool) African songs almost always carry a message that must be clear and understood by everyone.