Editorial 61

Modern-day griots?

Olivier Barlet
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Are contemporary African artists modern-day griots? Magazines and newspapers are full of the term and African literature, theatre and film are full of the figure of the griot. However, the expression is anything but neutral. The griot figure hides a certain globalist vision of Africa, which is applied to African creators and which they sometimes also appropriate for themselves, obliging them to take on a very precise role as mediators and propagators of the ancestral word whose objective is to prevent acculturation.
This creates a vision of a primitive Africa, which in turn reveals the vision of the old problem of the white man who is obliged to help Africa achieve modernity. Once again, this issue of Africultures is calling for this archaic conception to be supplanted.
Griots represent more than the mere weight of tradition. Ambassadors for tradition, they are undoubtedly its stoutest defender, protecting traditional customs against change. However, they also prove that the future is very much a product of the past. The griot is used to lend a certain authority to film and literature, although they have him say whatever they want! In this way they appropriate the aura of someone who serves as the memory and voice of his people, who symbolises the authority, legitimacy and authenticity of the spoken or written word by voluntarily identifying themselves with the anthropological griot.
Brunhilde Biebuyck and Boniface Mongo-Mboussa skilfully coordinated this issue, which nevertheless does not pretend in any way to cover all the complexities of the issue. We felt it was important in order that we might learn to be wary of those ready-made phrases that trap Africa in such a conveniently monolithic vision. We also pay tribute to the bearers of words, songs and music, whose immense repertoire still has an important role to play. These griots serve to remind us all of our cultural origins, which often go beyond the romantic vision created by the surrounding myth. The real, rather than the fictive griots (both tend to be confine within a single name) still have their place not only in Africa but also in what Africa offers the world through these modern-day bards, whose influence fast spreads across borders. This issue of Africultures makes it clear just how different the two types of griot are, especially in central Africa where the word is no longer considered appropriate! In this issue we have sought to provide them with a voice and share touching portraits, to help revive their presence.
The figure of the fictive griot portrayed in literature and film tells us a lot about the narrator’s intention and the way they are received by the public. Writers and readers, filmmakers and spectators have all contributed to making a myth of these fictive griots in an attempt to fight against cultural globalisation – to each their own griot, as Valérie Thiers-Thiam’s says in the title of her book published in conjunction with this issue in L’Harmattan’s Bibliothèque d’Africultures collection. However, the myth risks confining that which they seek to defend, with the risk that the myth will turn against them. More than ever, we need to recognise the diversity of traditional practices to better understand their significance, lessons and evolutions. It is only once we are conscious of the specificities of the griot’s contribution that we can stop this figure from being distorted by rigid, reactionary discourse. There is a move towards demystification, which we discuss this on the Africultures website and in the journal. Change is in the air!

///Article N° : 5727

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