copyright 2011 K.Omodele
West Africans didn’t rely primarily on writing as a means to document history and preserve culture. Like many African cultures, they emphasized an oral tradition in which Griots /Jelis passed down stories and accounts of events from one generation to the next. These storytellers were relied upon to educate the masses on their tribal history, religion and give the people a sense of identity.
“I acknowledge immense debt to the Griot (tribal poet) of Africa--where today it rightly said that when a Griot dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground.” - Alex Haley
The integration of storytelling with music is an essential component of the African oral tradition. As music has played a significant role in African societies, the spoken word has been a firm basis for relating wisdom and moral values in rhythm/song. Historically, African music was functional and had to be effective in its purpose – songs are customarily designed for everyday occurrences like farming, harvesting, washing, childbirth and rearing, marriage and death announcement, revering ancestors, exalting martyrs; there are even tradition songs about fertility and virginity.
The music’s functionality united with collective participation- an active audience was vital in giving life to the spoken word. For instance, call and response in African music cannot exist without significant involvement with the audience. The storyteller, music, audience participation were, and still are, dynamic components that make up the African oral tradition.
“Music in the West Indies has always been about the people; communicating how they feel to each other- it’s perfectly true what they say that it is the ghetto’s newspaper. Calypso and mento was about that; ska and rocksteady highlight the Rudeboy era. Reggae was celebrating independence and the optimism of the time, then the Rasta movement and the roots music showed up the general dissatisfaction at what was going on. It’s the same today, the dancehall reggae directly reflects the mood of the people, whether you think that mood is positive or not.” –Jimmy Cliff (Bass Culture, Lloyd Bradley)
African oral tradition survived the slave ship and plantation despite the slave owners’ discouragement of most forms of African culture. The prohibition of slaves from academic schooling contributed in preserving the culture of African-based oral tradition through storytelling, folktales and the African-sentiment phrased in similes and proverbs. Instead of learning from written texts, slaves learned culture and mores through Livity-the activity and practicality of living, which is comprised of oral tradition.In the Caribbean, we've kept this oral history culture alive to the extent that we have even documented history in music and song through mento, calypso, reggae and dancehall. True artists document our stories, giving social commentary on daily happenings just like griots of old.
Spoken Word Griots (Second Part).