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UNIT 12: Transmission of Traditions

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VIDEO SEGMENT: Oral Traditions in West Africa

This segment explores the transmission of tradition in West Africa — a process that relied principally on oral tradition and performance rather than on written texts. In some areas, initiation rites and ceremonies functioned to communicate past traditions to living audiences. For example, among the Bamana peoples one ceremony teaches audiences about their history as well as the qualities necessary to become a good farmer.

Most West African societies also relied on the skills of griots — traditionalists who preserve the past through song and verse. These specialists, in effect, functioned as historians, motivational speakers, genealogists, poets, and musicians, and their job was to maintain traditions by performing them to large audiences. Although modern historians have questioned the historical accuracy of such oral traditions, the presence of archaic words and place names within the stories suggest that they are in fact quite old.

Beginning in the twelfth century, an Arabic written culture also began to appear in West Africa as a result of the spread of Islam. Although the first texts to appear in West Africa were limited to religious matters, secular texts that attempted to translate oral into written traditions also began to appear. However, written texts could not replace the role and appeal of the griots, who even now continue to play a role in West African societies.

SELECTED IMAGES AND MAPS


Franko Khoury, CREST MASK (CHI WARA KUN), BAMANA PEOPLES, MALI (late 19th-early 20th century). Courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Baba Wague Diakite, VILLAGERS AND MUSICIANS DANCING WITH LOCUSTS IN THE SKY, MALI (2000). Courtesy of Baba Wague Diakite.


David C. Conrad, JELI (GRIOT) MAMADY KOUYATE PLAYING NGONI (LUTE) (1975). Courtesy of David C. Conrad.

Alexander Gordon Laing, GRIOTS AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS, SIERRA LEONE (1825). Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelpha.



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