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Monday, July 11, 2011

Spoken Word Griots: African Oral Tradition in Caribbean Music (Second Part)

In Africa, oral tradition was the primary means of teaching a people's history and culture. Griots were adept  storytellers, teachers and historians. African music was almost always pragmatic and functional-it did something. From keeping timing to farmers wielding their tools to announcing a birth. So the oral tradition integration of the spoken word and music was steeped in practicality.

African oral tradition survived the slave ship and thrived in spite and despite the institution of slavery. As a matter of fact, slave holders' codes that prohibited slave literacy worked in the favor of oral tradition as Africans continued to rely on storytelling and spoken word as a way of teaching family/community history, morals and brought-up-cy (values). Throughout the Caribbean, African oral tradition was kept alive in stories like Br'er Anansi*, in Africanized/African-themed proverbs, and folk tales and songs.  Cultural knowledge and values were passed through word of mouth from generation to generation, reinforcing family, community and clan. This is most evident in speech and customs still found in maroon communities throughout the Caribbean today.

That African oral tradition exists in Caribbean music is undeniable, especially when recalling components and characteristics that define African music: functionality, audience participation, its ability to relate and preserve culture through storytelling. Elements of oral tradition that are readily identified include the call and response melodies in Caribbean folk songs like "Day-O", which is a Jamaican mento song originally sang by dock workers loading bananas on ships. A few examples of Caribbean music that display oral tradition: Calypso, mento, pocomania and zouk. 

* the word Anansi in Akan means spider

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