African Studies Quarterly

Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Thomas A. Hale. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. pp 410. Cloth: $35.00.


This study brings together widely scattered information on the griots and griottes, traditional artists who have survived for more than a millennium in West Africa. Thomas Hale examines these artists in order to understand how verbal art is created and used in African societies to achieve personal or social goals.

Apart from the introduction and the appendices, the work is composed of ten chapters. These chapters easily sort themselves into two groups: the first group is a summary and confirmation of results by scholars spanning the fields of folklore, oral literature, anthropology, literature, etc. Indeed, Hale explains in his introduction the need to summarize what scholars have previously found in the course of studying the griot. Clearly, the art of the griot is one of the oldest to be found on the African continent. Yet despite such an ancient lineage, this art and its practitioners should not be perceived as trapped in some traditional past. Instead, the art and the artists consciously evolve in response to the demands of their age, constantly making themselves relevant to the needs of the society without compromising their original mandate (serving as the memory of the society). Hale also confirms, as many have done before, that difficulties arise when trying to study African poetics in translation (pp. 114, 145). This is especially problematic if the researcher assumes an external perspective that fails to surmount the barriers griots and griottes erect around themselves (p. 191).

A second important aspect of this work are the insightful new contributions to the study of griots and griottes. This group includes Hale's meticulous discussion of the origins of the word griot, revealing that it is not indigenous to the communities in which griots and griottes are found. In fact, he states that there are many indigenous artists and scholars who find this term offensive and would rather avoid using it all together. Hale points out convincingly, and with numerous examples, that there are many other terms in indigenous languages that are used by these artists to refer to themselves and their craft. The name griot has, however, tended to stick because scholars, largely Western and foreign, have found it more convenient than having to learn relevant indigenous names. Thus, Hale demonstrates the powerful impact of the external researcher upon the subject under scrutiny. The retention of the term "griot" continues despite the objections of both artists and their societies.

The most appealing chapter is "A Job Description of the Griots" which thoroughly demonstrates the socio-political importance of these artists and their "multi functional role" (p.17). It also exemplifies some of the broader characteristics of African art (socially-based, public, and multi-disciplinary). "Griottes: Unrecognized Female Voices" is also a contribution of some significance. It raises the issue of an urgent need to study the role of gender in performance arts in Africa. The evidence in this chapter illustrates that the male emphasis in most studies of the griot has been created by the researchers' own biases rather than a true reflection of gender relations in society. Indeed the author stresses that "women are viewed as more talented" than their male counterparts when it comes to discussing music and griots (p.165).

This work is a culmination of Hale's research which he began in 1964 and, with few interruptions, has continued for more than three decades. The study reflects the author's extended experience in West Africa. Hale has interviewed, talked to, and interacted with hundreds of artists and other scholars in this field. Yet he is quick to admit that without certain skills--a knowledge of music, a better understanding of the many cultures, and overall acceptance by the griot society--a researcher in his position finds it difficult to penetrate beyond the superficial when studying this important group of artists.

The target audience of this work is primarily a Western academic audience. Because of this, the actual contribution of the griots and those most familiar with their work, remains muted. The author points out the need to include contributions from the griots themselves for a more in-depth understanding. Hale reiterates that "we need to reframe the perspective on griots by including them in discussion" (p.317). This perspective is appropriate, since there is growing recognition of the need to approach African art forms through the artists who create them.

The other area of the text's strength lies in the extensive and valuable appendices. The richness of this topic can be seen in the various audio-visual media that Hale utilizes to create the multifaceted approach required to study African artists. The detailed sources/contacts the author provides will be of value to anyone interested in carrying out library and field research in West Africa or the United States.

Ramenga Mtaali Osotsi
Department of English
James Madison University