Griots : men of art, masters of the word




People belonging to a caste

  Functions of  jelilu

  Names of jelilu in West Africa

Aquarelle Griot et enfants

Aquarel of Pierre Bert - 2001

Griots (mandika word : jl, jllu plural) are people belonging to the caste of the “mkl”. This word is hard to translate ; it indicates a complex reality of the Manding society. Massa Makhan Diabate, in Janjon and other popular songs of Mali, translated it poetically by a solemn and great expression : “the staff of the evil spell” i.e. “ antidote of evil”.

Actually, that word like many Mandika concepts, has a lot of meanings (pejorative or ameliorative) depending on the context.

One may simplify considering the “mklya” as the whole people belonging to a caste who have to make, by vocation, works relating to crafts ; one can say that this caste gathers most of “people dealing with or making crafts” in the Manding areas.


For more informations, see chapter 5 of the book of Sory CAMARA, Gens de la parole, Essai sur la condition et le rle des griots dans la socit malink, Karthala, 1992 ; that chapter is entirely devoted to analyze multiple aspects of that reality.


Within that caste, there is a strict hierarchy and “griots” (Mandinka : “jllu”) are those who are the most considered.


Following a hierarchy from least to first esteemed men, “mkl” are :

“Griot du pays de Galam - Joueur du tam-tam” Engraving- Bnf

dot blacksmiths or every people working with them on a mill, (Mandinka, nm) ;


dot craftsmen, leather workers, shoe-makers (Mandinka, krk or garank) ;

dot craftsmen, wood workers (Mandinka, kl);


dot (hi)story-tellers (Mandika, fn, fn or fn) : particular griots (Mandinka : “jllu”) who have only the right to speak about lineages and tell (epic) stories ;


dot griots (jl, plural jllu, feminine jlmuso) ; they are bards, loremasters and praise-singers whose functions are (his)story-telling, speaking about lineages, singing and playing music as they want and hear it.


So as a result, among the “jllu”, there are categories in a rising consideration way, according to their specialities.

The competition is razor-sharp between fn and jl and does not make possible to distinguish a clear social superiority ; but on the other part, between the jllu themselves, a strict hierarchy still remains :


“At the head of the jl come the players of strings instruments. In second place are the griots which are playing the xylophone : blfol and players of wind instruments : bdfol and flfol. At last : all others griots and especially those who are using percussion instruments (drums especially).”

sources : Sory CAMARA, Gens de la parole, Essai sur la condition et le rle des griots dans la socit malink

Anyway, the common point of all is to be a part of a "caste" ; therefore, they are subjected to strict ethical laws , even now, the main laws are :


dot endogamy (marriage within same families ties) : the wives of the griots and the mkllu also belong to that caste, and they often pratice the profession of the jlya (art of griot), and they are also intented to be famous songstress.


dot a financial or (at least) a moral dependence to a patron or a family named “(d)jatigui” ; in exchange for benefits and some comforts given by his / her “(d)jatigui”, griots should use to sing, at will, the praise and eulogy of his “(d)jatigui” clan.


dot absolute discretion about secrets in Manding lines.


Functions of the jelilu

  Origin of the word “griot”

  Names of jelilu in West Africa


The jllu share the greatest part of Mande memory and history. Today, jllu are especially known as singers and musicians.


Actually, the jllu still are “Masters of the Word”; they do rise up or demolish men's honour ; they do placate down or excite the heat of warriors and leaders, tell and greaten the beginning, the apogee and the fall of an empire, and make a brave knight or a bad warrior enter or leave the Epic narrative.


That is the reason why, as long as Manding traditions will exist, these words of the famous “jeli” Mamadou Kouyate - storyteller of Sundiata, an Epic of Old Mali, will be forever true :

We are bags full of words, we are the bags that hold multisecular secrets.

The Art of speaking has no secret for us ; without us the names of the kings would fall into oblivion, we are the memory of the mankind. When we are telling, we make the actions of the kings lively in the minds of the younger generations. I hold my science from my father Djeli Kedian who also holds it from his father; History has no mystery for us; we teach to the common people what we want to teach ; we do hold the keys of the twelve doors of Manding...”

D.T. NIANE, Sundiata, an Epic of Old Mali  [bibliography]

Unknown origin of the french word “griot”

   People belonging to a caste

  Names of jelilu in West Africa


Until now, the exact origin of the french word griot is not clear.

The first time that it appears in a French text is on a manuscript of a governor of the Company of Senegal, in the end of the XVII century, entitled Le premier voyage du sieur de La Courbe fait la Coste d'Afrique en 1685 :

  “Cependant que les guiriots faisoient merveille chanter mes louanges et celles de leur matre et accompagnoient leur voix d'un petit luth trois cordes de crins de cheval qui n'est pas dsagrable entendre ; leurs chansons sont martiales, disant en vous nommant que vous estes d'une grande race, ce qu'ils appellent en Franois corrompu grands gens”.


According to Labouret, the word  griot  derives from Portuguese tongue :

“One can wonder whether this expression appointing the musicians, singers, wandering entertainers, troubadours belonging to the court of the princes and Great men in Senegal, also derives from Negro-Portuguese tongue. It would derive in that case from the verb criar : to raise, educate, teach to ; from where the title of criador, feeder, owner; criado : who was nourished, raised, educated, who lives in the house of the Master ; consequently, in a large and extended meaning : domestic, dependent, favorite customer.”  About the word "griot" , Notes africaines, 1959.

That speculation is not well admitted by all the specialists.


Obviously, Malinke men do not call people of that cast by using the word “ griot ”, but they are using the specific word “ jl ” or “ jl ” (“jllu”, plural).

  Exactly, “jllu” seldom say “ jl ” but rather use to say “ jl ” when they are speaking about themselves ; “jllu”, plural, “jl mousso”, feminine.

Various names indicating a “griot” in West Africa

   People belonging to a caste

  Functions of  jelilu




jl - jl maninka
dire - gur fulbe - soninke
gaoulo - gewel wolof / fulbe
gessere sarakole

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