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Media Matters: Singing History: Jeliya in the Classroom

Paul Ely Smith
Washington State University

    As someone who has developed music curricula from a global perspective for both music majors and non-majors at Washington State University, and also having taught WSU's "World Civilizations II" course for ten years, I have encountered many musical topics that are powerful vehicles for teaching history, and vice versa. Music, like food, conveys extremely complex information instantaneously, and often reveals profound cultural information not easily perceived through other media. For example, music is one of the few human artistic expressions that requires nothing more than a human body; the blues, the traditional music of the Irish and the Roma, and the mbaqanga of Soweto testify to something extraordinary about us as humans, that from the depths of despair and poverty come voices that transcend language.
    Some of the most challenging issues to convey in world history courses involve topics connected to oral tradition, since the very medium of academic discourse imperfectly represents performance in real time. We teach through a literate lens, for obvious reasons, yet we must recognize in teaching Homer that we are confronting a transcription of a performance, certainly delivered in "heightened speech" (e. g., rap) if not song, and likely accompanied by musical instruments. The vast majority of human lives have been lived in oral tradition, either pre-literate or illiterate, but their music was undoubtedly rich, using the natural mnemonic devices of musical repetition to preserve vital codes of their history and culture. Nowhere is the importance of oral tradition greater than in examining West Africa, where the traditions of music, dance, religion, and history have been woven into a complex fabric preserved only in the minds and performances of persons of extraordinary musical ability and training.
    When Alex Haley wanted to trace his West African heritage in researching Roots, he encountered a thriving tradition of oral historians, known by hundreds of names that are often represented by the mysterious French word "griot"—possibly a mispronunciation of the Wolof gewel. In addition to representing the most dramatic direct ancestor for most current American popular music, this tradition is a window on something once widespread and now extremely rare: a class of professional oral-tradition poet-musicians that has served emperors. Though the last African empire in the region, Songhay, fell in the late sixteenth century, jelis (this class of bards among the Mande people who formed the aristocracy of Songhay) have maintained a vigorous tradition through the onslaughts of slavery and colonialism to this day throughout the West African countries in which they live, including Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.
    Jelis (a. k. a., jali) who sing epics like Sunjata (celebrating the 13th-century emperor Sunjata Keita) and Askia Mohammed (16th century emperor), preside over most important ceremonies and events of the Mande people, settle disputes, act as ambassadors and intermediaries, integrate news and topical information into regular performances, and preserve vast amounts of historical information, such as genealogies. In the caste system of traditional Mande culture, the jelis are nyamakalalu, one of four professions (the others being blacksmiths/sculptors, leatherworkers, and public speakers) who are believed to have extraordinary spiritual powers, enabling them to master the dangerous forces, the nyama, of their materials, which in the case of jeliya are words and music (Charry, p. 48-49). In its function, this is the closest living tradition to Homer and the creators of Beowulf and Cuchulain. It tells the stories of their historic empire and the Atlantic slave trade. At the same time, it shows our students that the music they are listening to is built on an ancient tradition. This connection is a useful tool in the history classroom.  4
    Resources to explore and teach this tradition are not hard to find. My first choice is a video from a series shown on PBS called Repercussions (Produced by Third Eye Productions, Channel Four [Great Britain], and RM Arts;  published by Home Vision, Chicago, 1984). The first episode of the series is called "Born Musicians" and consists of a series of somewhat unconnected but still wonderful field recordings of jelis in action with narration and some interview. There are several scenes of performances of Sunjata, including one before an unnamed patron of (apparently) considerable stature, as well as another that shows the jelis fitting the epic to a particular function, inserting the name of the mother of a child whose naming ceremony is being celebrated.
    As with most African musical traditions, seeing it in its context of dance, theater, and ritual is the best way to experience it, though numerous CD's by artists such as Foday Musa Suso, Toumani Diabate, and other jelis are available. One that I have used in my courses is Foday Musa Suso's recording, Ancient Heart (Axiom/Island 314-510 148-2, 1990), because track #7 ("Julajekereh") demonstrates many of the most important aspects of Mande music in under four minutes. The main musical components of Mande traditional music are present in this recording, including kumbengo, a repeating musical groove as the foundation of musical performance; birimitingo, improvisation over the kumbengo; donkilo, the basic "song" sung by a chorus; and sataro, recitation—no wonder this sounds somehow familiar to American audiences; these are all essential parts of American popular music. In addition, the story line, in which a wealthy merchant is stopped from slaughtering slaves by a jeli, is a testament to power for the jeli—the merchant could not risk condemnation by the jeli. It also points out an important difference between West African and European slavery (also discussed by Olaudah Equiano in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African), that a power more persuasive than profit operated in West African cultures, even while slavery was part of the social structure.
    There are many sources of information about jeliya, but I think one of the best introductions is a built on a translation of the Mande epic, Sunjata. This is John William Johnson's analytical study and translation of jeli Fa-Digi Sisòkò's performance of Sunjata, called The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univeristy Press, 1986). In addition to the translated text, which is in itself a remarkable document, Johnson's introduction and first three chapters (especially Chapter 2) explain a lot about the tradition. Since this text describes historical figures in epic poetry, it is a very interesting comparison to the Iliad.
    For someone wanting to go to a deeper level of musical study, the next step would be to read Eric Charry's Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000). There's also a CD that goes with it. Beyond that, you might need a plane ticket to Mali.
    If you are intrigued by this music, and writing purely from my point of view as a lover of this music, I would also recommend some of the recordings of the fertile ground of Mande/American collaboration, as with Ali Farka Touré's 1994 recording with American guitarist/producer Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal HNCD 1381). Oddly, Ali Farka Touré is not a jeli (his clan is aristocratic, not nyamakalalu), but his music is solidly within this tradition. Another brilliant CD is Kulanjan (Hannibal HNCD 1444, 1999), which brings together one of the younger international stars of jeliya, Toumani Diabate, with American musician Taj Mahal.
    It is exciting to encounter such a thriving tradition that demonstrates so dramatically the power of something as ancient as epic poetry in the oral tradition. Often I have gotten a great response from students in the classroom by just playing "Julajekereh" and describing what they are listening to, letting them make connections to other issues we have covered. That it brings to life West African history, as well as sheds light (and audio) on epic traditions, such as the Greek and Celtic, that were lost as performance practice, makes it a unique window on the past.

Biographical Note: Paul Ely Smith is a composer and performer on a variety of instruments, and his music has been performed by ensembles as diverse as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and folk festival jam sessions. He has released two critically-acclaimed recordings on the Flying Fish label and has published several articles on the influence of West African traditions on American music. He currently teaches in the General Education and Music Departments at Washington State University.


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