Griots at the Taizé house in Dakar

Several Taizé brothers have been living in Dakar, Senegal, for the last 13 years or so. A large part of their activities is concerned with young people and children. “We are living in a large, popular neighbourhood. It’s a real privilege to be able to share people’s lives as we do, in a wide-open house that everyone feels they can enter.”
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One Friday during the rainy season, the courtyard of the brothers’ house is full of children and young people, and some mothers and several old men from the neighbourhood. Seated in the middle were two griots, one with a kora, a traditional harp with 22 strings that reverberate on a large calabash; the other has an African xylophone with small calabashes suspended underneath to enrich the sonority.

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What are griots? In West Africa these are professional oral historians; story tellers, musicians, living memories, all at once. In the past they were attached to the chieftainships at the local courts to celebrate the exploits of the ancestors and of the reigning dignitaries; to tell the history and the interminable stories, flattering, embroidering and re-embroidering the reality; at the same time court jester and historiographer; to this day they remain the keepers of the poetry of their linguistic group.

This is the business of a few families; theirs is the gift to transmit from generation to generation. They form a caste, like the blacksmiths, the potters or the wood cutters; they are apart and dreaded at the same time.

Today they mainly invited to lead celebrations, like marriages, and as the recital progresses, admirers come and stick bank notes on their sweat covered foreheads.

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The other Friday, they spoke about their “vocation”, and of their initiatory apprenticeship. In their story, there were many erotic allusions, stories of djinns and spirits, and a whole traditional universe in which they move.

They won over the assembly above all by their music and singing. The Kora player composes the words and music himself and the high point of the meeting was the heartrending lament inspired – on his return from a European tour - by the announcement of the death of his mother.

Last updated: 10 September 2006