Dynamic Aspects of Oral Cultures:
Transformation of the Griotís Profession under the Influence of Modernism

Mahaman Garba

Summary by Dawn Elvis

In traditional society in Niger, the griot acquired his function by inheritance and specialized training. Repository of the history and cultural traditions of the society and master of the spoken word, he was poet, moralist, and teacher. As such, he was highly respected for his knowledge and wisdom in all aspects of life, and his counsel was sought by the traditional kings, chiefs, and warriors. Griot was an occupational calling, and its practice was thus the source of the griotís livelihood.

The role and functions of the griot began to change with the passage of the society from feudalism to modernism. The many influences responsible for the change can be listed as Islamization, colonialism, Europeanization, technological change, natural disasters, and the diversion of traditional music to serve political ends. Together these developments led to a progressive politicization of the function of the griot.

As power came to be associated less with the traditional chiefs and warriors and more with the new administrative structures and the political leaders of the era of the republics, the griot pandered to the new power elite, performing songs intended to falsely praise a particular politician or promote certain political groups. This period also witnessed a vulgarization of sacred music, as this music was performed for personages to whom it was not destined by tradition. This trend led to the disappearance of some instruments and some musical genres.

The griots were totally repressed after the military takeover of 1974. When the military ruler Seyni Kountchť died in 1987, the general liberalization that followed gave rise to new performing groups who popularized the music. The griotís profession became a sort of hybrid in which it was no longer easy to differentiate the griot from the general artiste.†††

With the advent of democracy in 1990, a new kind of griot has emerged, the kind that excels in the art of defamation. Their role seems to be to stir up hatred among political adversaries, poisoning the socio-political atmosphere. They operate only in their own interest, willing to change political affiliation for personal gain. Flouting tradition, they evince no experience of the musical norms or of the rules of† propriety associated with the griotís calling.

One wonders what will become of the griot in the third millennium. Traditional music, the songs and dances that constitute our national pride, are about to disappear. It is now incumbent upon us to take action to revive and preserve them. This can only be accomplished if we look with pride to our high achievements of the past: the exploits of our ancient warriors against foreign domination, the stories of our sages, and the tales, legends, proverbs, and riddles that make up our history.