Mory Kanté and the Griot tradition

Mory Kanté, a Guinean singer, songwriter and musician, sadly passed away on the 22nd May 2020. His most successful song, ‘Yéké Yéké’, was the first African single to sell over a million copies. The themes and style of his music were inspired by the griot tradition. In this article, we will learn about the history of the griots and the new things that Kanté added to the style.  

What is a griot?

A griot is a West African poet, musician, or storyteller. Some griots prefer to be called by the terms jali or jeli, from the Mandinka language. The term for the female equivalent of a griot is griotte. The main role of the griot is to tell stories about the past, and to pass down memories from generation to generation. Traditionally, the skills needed to become a griot are passed down from parents to their children. 

The history of the griots

Griots have been around for approximately a thousand years. Their influence grew during the rule of the Mali Empire, which was at its strongest in the 14th century. In Mande culture, many villages had their own griots. They kept records of important events in the village, like births, marriages, battles and deaths. They also advised the rulers of the Empire and helped to settle political arguments. 

The griottes traditionally sang at ceremonies and celebrations. Their songs often advised other women to prepare them for their new life in marriage. 

Griots today

For the griots of today, music and performance have become more important. Griots perform as entertainers on television and radio and travel internationally, 

The role of the griottes has also changed. The griottes now sing the saabi, a song about the relationship between men and women. Nowadays, griottes are also writing more epic poems– long poems that tell a story.

What musical instruments do griots play?

Traditional West African music is known for having a wide range of stringed instruments. The most famous and most important instrument used by griots is the kora. The kora normally has 21 strings and is plucked with the fingers. Some modern versions, like the one that Mory Kanté used, have extra strings to produce lower notes.

Mory Kanté’s music and the griots

Mory Kanté’s music mixes the griot tradition with more modern popular music. The aim of his music was to give new meaning to traditional songs, and to share West African culture with the world. 

Kanté’s song ‘Yéké Yéké’ is in Mandinka, and he used the kora to play the melody. This shows how important his heritage is to him. However, there are also elements of electronic music in his songs, and his style has become known as ‘electric griot’. Mory Kanté’s music shows us how traditional music can be adapted to be relevant to the present day.

THOMAS LYNE

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