Praise Singers, the Hype Men of Mali (West Africa)
As Told by Dr. John Aden, AAAHSM Volunteer Executive Director
My name Dr. John Aden; I’m the Volunteer Executive Director of the African/African American Historical Society and Museum of Allen County. I teach the Introduction to African History and the Intro to Chinese Philosophy courses at Canterbury High School because I have a doctorate in history from Indiana University Bloomington, with a focus on Africa and Chinese history as my second field.
When I was in graduate school at I.U., I had applied for fellowships and grants to travel to West Africa in order to begin doing fieldwork. I needed to figure out what my project was going to be about, and I thought I might want to study ironworkers and blacksmiths, who were a pretty important occupational group in West Africa.
I first went to the Republic of Mali in 1995. In 1997, I was into the third of my foreign language area studies fellowships. I basically studied the language of Bamana, which is spoken by about 25 million people in West Africa. It’s the parent language of the Mandé language family, which is a very large language group.
(The Bamana term for praise singer, or Griot, is jeli (pronounced jell-lly)
I actually lived on the Niger River. The capital city of Mali is Bamako, which is on the northern bend of the Niger River. It has about the same land area-wise as Fort Wayne, but it has about 4.5 (maybe 5) million people who live there so it’s a jumping place to be sure.
For a long time, people (Malians, in particular) believed the mouth was a polluted space. It was an organ that could be used to damage social relations between people so the nobles (i.e. the rich class) would only speak at a whisper, but they would have a praise singer on their right hand side.
The praise singer would listen to these whispers then would project whatever the noble said in a really loud voice. So the praise singer acquired this ability for really loud talking. And they are amazing singers on top of that.
Praise singers recorded the oral histories and traditions of the political elites and the histories of the kingdoms that emerged in West Africa, starting in the 9th and 10th centuries and moving into the Middle Ages.