Niani Praise Songs

Formerly, in the Mandinka empire, the griot (
djeli) combined the functions of chronicler, historian, singer, musician, interpreter, public entertainer, etc. ... Today, despite the attraction of modern urban music and the inescapable acculturation of traditional societies, rural populations in this part of Western Africa, mainly Mali, Senegal and Gambia – but also in the whole Mandinka expansion zone as far as Burkina Faso – have remained attached to their griots and oral culture. It is not uncommon to meet griots who still travel through the countryside, going wherever they are hired or where an opportunity presents itself.  Sometimes serving a land owner, sometimes a notable or a rural radio station, on the occasion of a celebration or seed sowing, a marriage, a baptism, a circumcision or a village meeting, these itinerant bards offer their services wherever they can, never missing a chance to embellish small and large events of rural life with their art. Adept professionals, they cleverly dispense praise and tributes, elaborating on the legends and genealogies of those who hire them.

The griots are the living memory of the community and are generally bound by ancestral contract to a single family, sometimes even a single person. These "bosses" or tutors, of noble descent, the horon (free men), used to be rich enough to keep several griots and their families. Today, it is not rare to see certain of these poet-musicians, who have had a stroke of luck, or who have become famous, especially in the cities, end up richer than their so-called bosses. Yet, through allegiance, the griots remain faithful to their horon and to the members of their families. As masters of words, more than as musicians, they are duty bound to carry on the myths and legends in praise of their horon, even though the latter may have fallen on hard times or are no longer living. The griots fix and model history according to their inspiration and mood, becoming, if need be, formidable educators and propagandists in the service of their causes. It is said that at the end of the Second World War, the griots went on a journey all over Western Africa to sing of the triumph of General de Gaulle and the abolition of forced labour.

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In days gone by, the political role of the griots in Western Africa was considerable. Using the device of an apparently harmless song, the griot could shape, magnify or ruin a reputation. During conflicts, griots became negotiators and diplomats despite the fact that they are generally illiterate. Their genealogical knowledge of the families to which they were bound made them the best arbitrators in delicate situations. Today, the great mobility of populations, the dissemination of information by radio, and the interactivity between different groups and communities, has relegated the great lineages of griots such as the Kouyate to the back seat of the political and social scene. Some, however, have compensated for losing their monopoly of oral tradition in contemporary society by developing the musical side of their art and have conquered, though not without making concessions, new audiences as far afield as the West.

Noumoucounda Kouyate was forty years old when these recordings were made. He is from Gambia where he lives on the banks of the river during the wintering period (July, August and September). His father and his grandfather came from Niani – a small region in the immense Mandinka empire – to serve the king Mansa Kimintang. At that time, there were no kora players in Niani and they became the interpreters and spokespeople of the king until the republican administration abolished dynasties.

Noumoucounda Kouyate learned the art of the kora and singing from his uncle up until the age of twelve. His repertoire – in Bambara, the language of the Mandinkas – includes just under two hundred songs and melodies that he accompanies on the kora. This instrument, characteristic of Western black Africa, has magnificent tones and is a combination of a lute and a harp. It has a resonance chamber formed by a large calabash covered with a skin and a long neck tied with twenty-one strings stretched over a large bridge. It covers a range of about three octaves.

Contrary to modern griots in big cities, Noumoucounda Kouyate carries on the ancestral tradition of the itinerant bard, musician, historian and genealogist. Throughout his journeying he never misses a chance to salute his tutors, the Camaras, descendants of the royal lineage. Kora in one hand, an amplified loudspeaker and a car battery set up on a shopping caddy pulled along in the other, he travels through the Niani from village to village. This former Mandinka land is now split by a political border of colonial origin, a hindrance that the defunct Senegambie hoped to dissolve... However, no border in Mandinka country has ever prevented the circulation of epics and legends or the griots who peddle them.

The profession of djeli has significantly changed in the face of the upheavals that Western African countries have suffered since their respective independences. In the countryside, their repertoire – extremely rich and varied – is an exceptional patrimony that is well conserved. Their songs not only cover the complex genealogy of their horon and the chronicle of Mandinka kings, but are also full of advice and convey all sorts of fables and satirical stories. Little by little, the interest for the genealogical songs paying tribute to dignitaries or disappeared kings is fading. But other songs, of friendship, peace, and love are being included in the repertoire. However, there is no denying that griots have lost their monopoly over the spoken word and, in a way, their political influence. In the cities especially, they compete with singers from very different horizons and are often forced to give in to the pressures of the pop market, which puts even greater distance between them and their rural brothers. It is not only foreign influences that are responsible for this trend. The changes in society, the rural exodus, the excesses of the cities and, above all, the breakdown of the social contract exacerbate the differences. In the countryside, as these recordings bear witness, Mandinka tradition endures, though not without a few adaptations.

This record was recorded in Niani, in Malemba (Koumpentoum, Senegal), in April 2003, at the First Cultural Festival of Niani in which Noumoukounda Kouyate participated. 

CD tracks

  1.  Sory (from the name of a rhythm)
    This song tells the story of the Toure and the Cisse, Mandinka witch doctors at the time of their conversion to Islam. Naturally, Noumoukounda also praises the Camaras, his tutors, nevertheless reminding them discreetly that nobody knows their own destiny, that God alone decides the fate of each person and that therefore one must not be haughty.

  2. Macina (from the name of a Peul land in Mali)
    In this praise song, Noumoukounda Kouyate praises the Peuls of Mali, but also those of Niani. This community of transhumant shepherds has travelled since time immemorial between Mauritania, Senegal and Mali, looking for grazing land and water holes for their herds. The song is interspersed with various assessments and advice and informal greetings ("Good evening, Issaga"), and is followed without transition by the following piece.

  3. Magnoba Isabari Yin Yin - "Be patient, young bride!"
    Marriage requires rapport between husband and wife, and patience.
    As if to punctuate this long song and lighten it up or recapture the audience's attention, the griot includes, according to the inspiration of the moment, a thoughtful attention for his protectors, in this case the "toubabs" (whites). "The journey with the Whites has been long and prosperous. Long live the toubabs! I sing of the brave sons of the Niani. The toubab of Issaga (Issaga Diallo, adviser to this production) has done a good technical job and he gave money!*".
    The piece ends with several repetitions of "Bonjour madame, ça va? Good morning!" which are all the funnier for the fact that Noumoucounda speaks neither French nor English...
    * Allusion to royalties received. All Colophon Records productions involve a contractual payment paid in advance.

  4. Alalaké - "Fate" (instrumental)
    This piece is considered to be the origin of the kora, the "first" melody.

  5. Djaby (from the name of a lineage of famous Niani witch doctors)
    "The Djaby are great witch doctors". This story about the Djaby whose car was held by the customs officers in Dacca is proof of the statement. The witch doctor sends one of his talibe (pupils) to solve the problem but to no avail. He therefore puts a curse on the customs officers who go crazy, set fire to their offices, etc. "... The witch doctor did all that during walwa (between 9 and 11 o'clock in the morning), without once setting foot at the custom officers' brigade…" 

  6. Thiedo -  "The warriors" (instrumental)
    There exists a version of this old song that tells the story of king Djanke Waly, an animist, and his meeting with the witch doctor Sékou Omar from Fouta (Guinea), the religious wars that followed and the defeat of the king. The improvisation at the end of this version, which is normally instrumental, tells a story full of magic during which a father accepts the kola and gives his only daughter to five boys in marriage. The famous Guinean singer Mory Kanté took up this theme in a song denouncing the slavery of women.

  7. Maki (from the name of a king – instrumental)