A griot (IPA /gɹi.ɒ/ in English or [ɡʁi.o] in French, with a silent t) or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African poet, praise singer, and wandering musician, considered a repository of oral tradition. As such they are sometimes also called bards. According to Paul Oliver in his book "Savannah Syncopators", "Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable." Although they are popularly known as 'praise singers', griots may also use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.
Griots today live in many parts of West Africa, including Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Western Sahara and Senegal, and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka, Malinké, Bambara, etc.), Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs and many other smaller groups. The word may derive from the French transliteration "guiriot" of the Portuguese word "criado," which in turn means "servant."
In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: jeli in northern Mande areas, jali in southern Mande areas, guewel in Wolof, gawlo in Pulaar (Fula), and igiiw (or igawen) in Hassaniyya Arabic. Griots form an endogamous caste, meaning that most of them only marry fellow griots and that those who are not griots do not normally perform the same functions that they perform.
Each family of griots accompanied a family of warrior-kings, which they called jatigi. In traditional culture, no griot can be without jatigi, and no jatigi can be without a griot; the two are inseparable, and worthless without the other. However, the jatigi can accept a "loan" of his griot to another jatigi.
Most villages also had their own griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and hundreds of other folktales.
In the late novels of the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote takes the form of a praise-song by the Sora, the Griot, Bingo to the president-Dictator of the fictitious République du Golfe. His final novel Allah is not Obliged also prominently features a griot character.
There are also references in the Alex Haley's book Roots of a Griot that passed his family history through oral tradition. When Haley traces back his history, passing from his previous generation through the slave time, back to Africa, he thought there should be griots telling his history and the history of his ancestor, known in the family as "The African", who was captured in the bushes when he was seeking timber to make a talking drum. When he arrived in Africa to make researches to his book, he actually found Griots telling his history. It was through them he learned the ancestor's identity, Kunta Kinte. Since he had first heard the story from his grandmother and later refreshed by his older cousin, he believed that they were griots in their own way until someone put the story to writing. He later learned that his cousin had died within the hour of his arrival at the village.
In Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, the protagonist Avatara (Avey) might take on some of the characteristics of a griot, especially in her commitment to passing on to her grandchildren her aunt's oral story of the Ibos at the Landing, in which Africans brought to the U.S. Sea Islands to be slaves promptly turned around and walked back to Africa over the water.
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