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|Contexts and Comparisons||Chapter 1 - Epic Poetry|
In the early part of this century, scholars studying the performances of oral poets in Yugoslavia began to understand how long epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey could have been composed and held in memory centuries before being written down. Had these scholars traveled to Africa, they would have found a living tradition of oral poetry there as well.
As readers of Alex Haley's Roots know, bards, or griots, in West Africa to this day sing extended narratives celebrating heroic exploits of long ago. In fact, they invent new poems in response to current events as well. In other words, contemporary griots preserve and create an art form that affirms the power of the poetic impulse in a culture that makes the bard central to its understanding of itself.
Often reciting to a musical accompaniment provided by a stringed instrument, the griots reach their audiences with an immediacy that poetry on the page cannot recapture. Because this poetry was never conceived to be read, it loses more in translation than most other translated literature; yet the written texts still convey some sense of the way oral poets approach their material.
Even within Africa itself, of course, translation is required if poems are to travel, for Africa boasts many languages and cultures. During the Middle Ages, a language group called Mande was spoken in West African territories now known as modern Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea-Bisseau, Liberia, Mali, and the Ivory Coast. (These languages have diversified over the centuries and now include Malinke, Bambara, Dyula, and others.) This Mali Empire, an Islamic state, was created by the king Sundiata (also spelled Sunjata or Sundjata; djata means "lion," Sundiata, the "Son of the Lion"). Sundiata came to power when he defeated his rival Sumaguru, an adherent of the old local religion, in A. D. 1235.
The version of the epic that bears Sundiata's name starts by recounting events that preceded his birth. The strange manner of Sundiata's conception is described in detail, and we learn that as a child, he seemed unpromisingly clumsy, slow, and morose. As was the custom, his father bequeathes to this dull child the son of his own griot. He urges the boy to "hear the history of [his] ancestors" and to learn "the art of governing Mali from Balla Fasseke," the griot. Sundiata finally comes into his own when he picks up a "gigantic iron bar" and bends it into the shape of a bow. At that point, he becomes a great hunter.
After a variety of humiliations, the crisis of Sundiata's career arrives. The excerpt below, (1) based on an unpublished transcription of the words of several griots, including Marmadon Konyate, who spoke in Malinke, describes how the future king's griot was viewed by his antagonist, Sumaguru (here called Soumaoro Kante), depicted in the poem as a supernatural figure. Because of Sundiata's status as a Muslim king, the epic pays less attention to his occult powers.
Excerpts from Sundiata Soumaoro Kante, the Sorcerer King
While Sogolon's son was fighting his first campaign far from his
native land, Mali had fallen under the domination of a new master,
Soumaoro Kante, king of Sosso.
He began to play. He had never heard such a melodious balafon. Though scarcely touched by the hammer, the resonant wood gave out sounds of an infinite sweetness, notes clear and as pure as gold dust; under the skilful hand of Balla the instrument had found its master. He played with all his soul and the whole room was filled with wonderment. The drowsy owls, eyes half closed, began to move their heads as though with satisfaction. Everything seemed to come to life upon the strains of this magic music. The nine skulls resumed their earthly forms and blinked at hearing the solemn 'Vulture Tune'; with its head resting on the rim, the snake seemed to listen from the jar. Balla Fasseke was pleased at the effect his music had had on the strange inhabitants of this ghoulish chamber, but he quite understood that this balafon was not at all like any other. It was that of a great sorcerer. Soumaoro was the only one to play this instrument. After each victory he would come and sing his own praises. No griot had ever touched it. Not all ears were made to hear that music. Soumaoro was constantly in touch with this xylophone and no matter how far away he was, one only had to touch it for him to know that someone had got into his secret chamber.
The king was not far from the town and he rushed back to his palace and climbed up to the seventh story. Balla Fasseke heard hurried steps in the corridor and Soumaoro bounded into the room, sword in hand.
'Who is there?' he roared. 'It is you, Balla Fasseke!'
The king was foaming with anger and his eyes burnt fiercely like hot embers. Yet without losing his composure the son of Doua changed key and improvised a song in honour of the king:
he is, Soumaoro Kante.
This improvised tune greatly pleased Soumaoro and he had never heard such fine words. Kings are only men, and whatever iron cannot achieve against them, words can. Kings, too, are susceptible to flattery, so Soumaoro's anger abated, his heart filled with joy as he listened attentively to this sweet music:
hail, you who wear clothes of human skin.
Balla sang and his voice, which was beautiful, delighted the king of Sosso.
'How sweet it is to hear one's praises sung by someone else; Balla Fasseke, you will nevermore return to Mali for from today you are my griot.'
Thus Balla Fasseke, whom king Nare Maghan had given to his son Sundiata, was stolen from the latter by Dankaran Touman; now it was the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kante, who, in turn, stole the precious griot from the son of Sassouma Berete. In this way war between Sundiata and Soumaoro became inevitable.
We are now coming to the great moments in the life of Sundiata. The exile will end and another sun will arise. It is the sun of Sundiata. Griots know the history of kings and kingdoms and that is why they are the best counsellors of kings. Every king wants to have a singer to perpetuate his memory, for it is the griot who rescues the memories of kings from oblivion, as men have short memories.
Kings have prescribed destinies just like men, and seers who probe the future know it. They have knowledge of the future, whereas we griots are depositories of the knowledge of the past. But whoever knows the history of a country can read its future.
Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past any more, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. With them everybody thinks he knows, whereas learning should be a secret. The prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books!
I, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, am the result of a long tradition. For generations we have passed on the history of kings from father to son. The narrative was passed on to me without alteration and I deliver it without alteration, for I received it free from all untruth.
- Western epics tend to offer detailed descriptions of bloody battles, since power tends to be a function of military force. Judging from the descriptive focus in this passage, from what source does power emanate in African epics?
- What evidence do you see in this excerpt of the role played by poetry in Mali culture?
- How would you compare the attitude toward poetry in this passage with that in the Sanskrit Ramayana?
- How would you compare the griot's self-presentation in this excerpt with the stance of narrators you have encountered in other long poems?
1. From G.D. Pickett's English translation of D. T. Niane's French translation.