Customary Methods of Transmitting Oral Tradition:
The Case of the Sosso-Bala

Namankoumba Kouyaté

Summary by Dawn Elvis

The adoption of the new concept of a "cultural space" -- places where folklife and other presentations of great historical significance can be periodically performed -- has brought a new dynamic to the study of the preservation and revitalization of traditional folk heritage. The Sosso-Bala, the "Balafon of Soso," and its cultural space are a fine illustration of such customary methods of transmitting oral tradition.
An instrument whose origin dates back to the thirteenth century, the Sosso-Bala has created a cultural space around itself that is a vibrant, original, and sublime expression of a harmonious synthesis between tangible and intangible cultural heritage. It is still preserved today in Niagassola, in the Siguiri district in Guinea.
The Government of Guinea recognized quite early the need to preserve this instrument in its environment and entrusted its care to the Dökala family, whose descendants, the Kouyaté tradition-keepers, make sure that it is preserved and managed in accordance with time-honored ritual. The family, in turn, has created the "Dökala Association," a non-governmental organization that involves itself with art, music, culture, dance, and education. Local and national preservation policies give pride of place to the sacred Balafon of Sosso because of its unique role in enabling the transmission of the traditional culture of the Mandingo people from generation to generation.
For decades the Government of Guinea has made considerable efforts along these lines. However, these efforts have not achieved the expected results mainly because of a lack of material and financial resources. At the local level, the tradition-keepers are facing serious social and economic difficulties that gravely threaten their cultural transmission functions.
It is therefore important that urgent and effective measures be taken to stabilize the traditions performed in the cultural space of the Sosso-Bala, of which the Dökala family are the sole practitioners, and to stem the rural exodus that is depriving the family of its potential youthful disciples. Such measures, together with financial assistance to the keepers of tradition, are essential prerequisites for adequately maintaining these traditional skills.
International cultural organizations, led by UNESCO, should take urgent steps to support the implementation of local and national policies aimed at safeguarding and revitalizing the cultural space of the Sosso-Bala - the instrument that remains, indisputably, the oldest and the richest traditional heritage of the Mandingo civilization.