Twilight of the griot

Editor’s note: In preparing a book manuscript on marriage based on 2010-2012  fieldwork, I find some interviews that I can’t integrate into the project. I’ve decided to start posting a few of the more noteworthy ones, translated and edited, to this blog. The interview excerpted below was with a jeli (pl. jeliw), also known as a griot, in his Bamako tailor shop, back in early 2012. As with all my interviewees, I promised him anonymity, so he goes nameless here.

Outsiders, if they know about griots at all, associate them with music and praise singing, but this veteran griot was no musician. For him being a griot, as he explained, had nothing to do with music. He took his inherited role seriously and was critical of the way other griots, and society in general, had become corrupted by money. His words now read like the sad chronicle of a dying way of life (what’s known in my profession as “salvage ethnography”). He spoke quietly while projecting an almost palpable energy; this was among the most intense interviews I’ve done. Special thanks to my wife Oumou for helping me with the translation from the Bamanan language.

My family is a jeli family from Segou. We are griots of the kings of Segou who lived four hundred years ago. Our way of being griots is different from other griots. I want you to understand that. Because there are griots who will go to your house, play their ngoni and ask for you for something. We don’t do that.

Peace talks between two towns in conflict, that was our first role as griots. The second role was to facilitate agreement between two families whose children were to be married. Whenever there is a marriage, it is because of a griot. If you wanted a wife for your son, you would call us, the griots, even before you told your son.

In the past, for example, the father was the one who would find his son a girl to marry. He would call a jeli and tell him, “Go ask for the hand of this girl from her parents for this son of mine.” The griot already knew the father of the girl, her grandfather, her mother and her grandmother. So you knew the girl was good, because she was from a good family. And you wanted to have the kind of girl married into your family, so you could have good children with her.

Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 9.32.37 AM

A jelimuso (female griot) working a Bamako wedding in 2010, clutching banknotes in both hands. My interviewee took pains to distinguish himself from this kind of griot.

Her relatives would also talk about the family that was asking for the girl’s hand. They would try to find out if the other family had good people before letting a member of their family go live with them. They started with the boy’s father and grandfather to see if there was a history of good behavior in that family. If they all agreed that there was, they would give their approval for the marriage. Or someone might say, “You know that boy’s great grandfather once stole something, so we should not let them have our daughter.” Then there won’t be a marriage.


If your father stole something or your grandfather lied about something, that would ruin the dignity of the family. If that was the case, the girl’s family with a high standard wouldn’t let their daughter marry him. But if everything checked out about you and your family, then the girl’s family would agree to the marriage. Marriage was only allowed when the couple belonged to the same social class or group. A jeli could marry another jeli or a blacksmith. A blacksmith could also marry a jeli. A noble can marry another noble. A funè can marry another funè.[1]

If the couple really love each other, the marriage will last. But very few marriages last, because here the foundation of marriage used to be your upbringing–your roots, the people you come from, like your grandfather, your father. And today that is not important for people. If you have money, a good job and you are a funè, you can marry a griot here in Bamako, but that is not in [my family’s] background. The jeliw like Kouyaté, Sissoko, Diabaté and Dembelé can marry a funè, but [my family] will not marry funèw. Today if they have money, even Fulani and blacksmiths get married.[2]

Marriage in Bamako today has more heartache than happiness. If the bride’s family asks for 250,000 francs [about US$500], I should not negotiate with them like we are bargaining, but ask with respect and dignity, since the matter is about a human being. You cannot show in any way that you are trying to set the price of a human being. That way things get easier between you and the bride’s family. And then I will need to report back to the groom’s family. I will say they asked for 250,000 francs, and then agree to 100,000 francs. Then I will deliver just the 100,000 francs, with no extra for me. I don’t expect any money from you for my service; if even you give it to me I won’t take it. I just do it for God’s sake. If I have to travel to Segou or even Kidal to deliver the kolas,[3] I won’t accept your money. But today the jeli live off marriage negotiations, as if it is a profession. That is why marriage liaisons are not strong anymore and marriages don’t last.

[In my family] we don’t want that money, but other jeliw live on that. If you call them to  negotiate for a wedding to take place, they will demand 10,000 or 20,000 francs for transport. Someone even came here and proposed 10,000 francs as a negotiation fee when his own daughter was the future bride. I couldn’t accept it–I left the room, I was so upset.

Being a jeli is really hard. Real jeliw don’t exist now. All we have today is making money. If a jeli today meets a Mr. Bagayogo, he will tell him that he is related to all Bagayogos in general; he won’t say his father’s name or his grandfather’s name, or his father’s siblings, just “Bagayogo.” That is not being a jeli, that is asking for money! If I meet him I should do it the right way, starting with his father, his grandfather, then I come down to him. In Mali there are a lot of patronyms; I can speak about 72 patronyms [4] very well. I can start speaking from now until sundown without repeating a thing, if I want to. So if everything I tell him is true, his heart will beat and he will give me some money automatically.

If I wanted to, I could close my shop right now and take you to Dabanani market and talk to the rich men, call their names and the names of their fathers and grandfathers. I assure you I would leave with 500,000 francs. But we don’t want that. This is what makes griot work complicated. The purpose of being a jeli is to serve people, to restore peace between people and countries, and people who love each other. Jeliw used to be the ones who could tell the king bad news or things he did not want to hear. Others would be afraid to say it because the king could behead them. The griot was the only one allowed to do that without any consequence. [In my family] we don’t care even if you own everything in the world. We are not going to your house to eat. But we still tell you the truth if even you don’t like it. That is the difference between us and other jeliw.



  1. A funè is a member of another hereditary social class, similar to griots but, as this interview suggests, socially distinct from them. The funè specializes in Islamic praise poetry.
  2. There are taboos against marrying across certain ethnic and caste lines. Marriage between members of the Fulani ethnic group and the numu (blacksmith) caste remains among the most strongly taboo, though such taboos have begun to weaken under the influence of Islam and modernity.
  3. Kola nuts are symbolic of marriage in Mali, and are sent by one family (through the intermediary of the griot) to another to symbolize the request for a woman’s hand in marriage.
  4. The patronym (jaamu in Bamanan) is the father’s family name, or what Americans call the “last name.” This is the name with which a family’s genealogy and reputation are associated. Bagayogo, Coulibaly, Keita, and Traoré are among the more common patronyms.

Related readings on jeliw:

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4 Responses to Twilight of the griot

  1. Thanks for sharing, Bruce! Curious in what way the translation is “edited” — too bad we can’t listen along. Is it transcribed in Bambara as well or did you work straight into translation?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Straight into translation, Coleman. I cut out some paragraphs and individual sentences from the full translation in the posted version.

  2. priffe says:

    “Les griots qui chants pas” I have heard used in a derogatory way, but had a feeling I could not quite understand what it meant.

  3. Jennifer Bowers says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve only once met a griot who didn’t have their hand out for money — and that was a Christian griot family (which as you know is EXTREMELY rare) who didn’t actually practice their traditional profession.

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