Everywhere in the world, you find oral culture, and specifically, oral storytelling getting lost. But with changing of times, shifting populations and the rise of digital entertainment: Who will continue to weave these stories around the fireside, and who will be there to listen? And if there are willing listeners, how are they to be reached?
Perspective written by: Leontine van Hooft
It is very well likely that our ancestors gathered around the evening fires and expressed their fears, their beliefs, and their heroism through oral narratives. Community storytelling offered the security of explanation; how life and its many forms began and why things happen in the way they do, as well as entertainment and enchantment. Storytelling brings communities together. This long tradition of storytelling, an important form of art, is still evident in ancient cultures for example on the African continent. Not only for Africa, but this golden rule applies to every culture and can be found in lots of examples.
In the Middle Ages storytellers, also called a troubadour, minstrel or bard, could be seen in the marketplaces and were honored as members of royal courts. Medieval storytellers were expected to know all the current tales to repeat all the noteworthy theses from the universities, to be well informed on court scandal, to know the healing power of herbs and simples (medicines), to be able to compose verses to a lord or lady at a moment’s notice, and to play on at least two of the instruments then in favor at court. But the times are changing…
Turbulent modern times & the search for identity
A culture is like a river, always floating and on the run, like a movement. Only the forms differ during the ages and generations. And so does the meaning of things. This is what storytelling, and art in common, reminds of. It’s like an ongoing process and reflects the constant search for identity. That is why in Africa, like in other agrarian societies, the traditional moonlight storytelling culture has not disappeared but will continue to reach new forms of expression and be changing on the river of time.
“It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling.”
– Khalil Gibran
It looks like that for the West it’s difficult to accept modern times, within these upcoming markets. In thinking and speaking about Africa’s spirit the West keeps repeating the same old ideas and prejudices, while the continent is constantly evolving and developing itself rapidly. Most Western people still look at Africa with an exotic look full of regret and pity. The idea that you have to go back in time to find the true African culture and identity is nonsense and is stopping developments.
Africa needs great modern storytellers to change the hardwearing image (how)
A Griot is an important medium in this case. Through storytelling and music, the Griot has shared and maintained the identities and histories of communities in West Africa for centuries. A Griot is a poet, singer, historian, musician, comedian, an entertainer and much more. There has been a lot of international studies regarding Griot culture having provided the African and African Diaspora with a way to reach back and carry forward their ancestral heritage. Therefore, it is essential that the memories and personal histories of people are being preserved. At this moment it is still possible. When the elders have died, a library dies with them, is an African saying. But are oral traditions associated with rural life really at risk of being lost to the past?
It is not a battle between tradition versus modernity
The obvious ways to translate the storytelling culture for consumption by a modern audience would be the approach of the West: simply recording and writing it down for the archive. But that would lose the fluid spontaneity which distinguishes oral culture. Because if you remove the performative element and the potential for interaction with both the surroundings and audience, then the magic and meaning of storytelling will vanish.
Where once the Griot had to travel by foot for many miles to share the stories of his king or community, now ICT enables local stories to be shared with the world online. The revolution unchained by mobile phone home-grown broadcasting is near.
Mass media, modern storytellers
Mass media can be seen as a cultural storyteller. It has a diversity of ways to reach big groups of people. One of the medium to reach the younger generation is through gaming. When world-class game makers cooperate with great storytellers ànd elders, games can be created with an interesting cultural touch. A great example is the wonderful game ‘Never Alone’, which proves that heritage and modern technology can go hand in hand. Rather than written stories and archive filing, the possibilities of ICT enables storytellers to create, share and celebrate new and old stories.
Another ubiquitous example of these ‘modern griots’ can be found in contemporary rap music such as DJ Lee of Griot B & School Yard Rap He tells and sings about the great history and misconceptions about Africa. These modern Griots serve as the ‘camera of today’s society’ and are important for identity development. Focusing on personal experiences, local issues and the struggles and successes of daily life and combining prepared verse with improvised commentary, the links between rap and griot styles are abundant.
Another way of oral-literary processing is by means of performance art. In Africa theatre matters. African theatre is entertainment, but it can also be aesthetically, politically, socially and spiritually committed, and often it is all these things simultaneously. It draws on indigenous performance traditions including dance, music, storytelling, and mime. At its best African theatre is a total experience, of mind, body, and soul which engages with, and feeds off a highly responsive, involved and vocal audience also a kind of humorous performance. For example storyteller Diana Ferlatte.
Movies and films, such as Nollywood productions, an audiovisual symphony with many layers and a great narrative wealth can be brought to the audience. Africa’s spirituality allows a much richer layered reality because of the long and diverse traditions.
Floating between history, reality and future aspirations the Griot’s values get a modern opportunity to create new meaning and spirituality and reach the younger generations. The interest in storytelling is unlikely to go away and, hopefully, griot traditions will be able to survive, prosper and inspire alongside new modes of storytelling, and with a little innovation and imagination, new traditions will be born.
Perspective written by: Leontine van Hooft