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The Diminishing Role of ‘Jalis’ In Our Society



The Diminishing Role of Jalis in our Society and ‘Jali  ñìng ā’batuū faā’ (every Jali has an adorable family he/she goes to when the needs arise) Relations. 

Alfusainey Sanneh, a Gambian based in Finland


By Alfusainey Sanneh, a Gambian based in Findland

To be born in a ‘Griot Family ‘ is inherently a noble thing in the history of Manding. ‘Jalis’ (griots) are the ultimate custodian of the Antiquity(s) from the reign of Soumanguru Kante, to the rulings of Manding (Kings) , Sundiata Keita, Mansa Musa , Sonni Ali , Maghann Konate, down to the last Kingdom  of  Māndiñg (Kaabou empire) which was ruled by Nyanchos (Sannehs and Manneh), beginning from the first  Kings /mansa Sama  Koli To the last Mama Jankey Wally Sanneh.

Although the reigns of those Kings were eventful and marked by many significant historical occurrences and incidents including the famous battle of Kansala, those events were verbally documented and relayed by the ‘Jalis’.  More importantly mincing social systems, and its functions as well as roles and values attached to each category of the hierarchically ordered. Manding social settings are neatly crafted by the Jalis in their own ways, which made it possible that the subsequent generations remained connected to their roots.

Consequently, the Jalis in The Gambia as in many other parts of many dominated countries in West Africa remain not only as musicians, but also as singers, and oral historians. They are  trained to excel as orators, as they remain gatekeepers to records of all the births, deaths, marriages through the generations of  villages, settlements and families. This qualified them (Jalis ) to be called Master of the oral traditions.

 The griot profession is hereditary and has long been a part of our culture. The griots’ role has traditionally been to preserve the genealogies, historical narratives, and oral traditions of their people; praise songs are also part of the griot’s repertoire.

Many griots play the Kora, a long-necked harp lute/ Calabasa with 21 strings as an essential tool to do their socially admired functions. In addition to serving as the primary storytellers of their people, the Jalis  also served as advisers to the Kingdom and diplomats of kingdoms.

However,   their advisory and diplomatic roles have diminished to a great extent, as the entertainment element of their functions remains persistent and more recognized.

Thus, the role of Jalis in our societies transcends the relationship of ‘Jalo Ñing Ābatuu Faa Tehmaà’. The Jalis are the only recognized people who have the authority to narrate the history of Manding chronologically.

The authority and legitimacy to assume this role are ascribed to the fact that lived events and scenes, and recorded verbally which made possible many historical records were verbally passed onto subsequent generation of the Jalis ‘Taàrakuùkoto lonģ’ (the inherited tradition).

Despite this, and due to imposed modernization carried to us through education, migration and essay exposure to others, our societies are increasingly devaluing the role of the Jalis, as their services to our societies continue to be confined to mere entertainment.

The copy-paste internalization of western values  in the names of globalization , modernization and standardized, is increasingly the attitude of our people towards the Jalis, as meanings attached to their functions changed from storytellers, beginning  to disregard our and custodians of Manding history and culture, to  beggars.

Growing up in a family, which inherently values culture, one could be mingling with his Jalis, especially on great occasions like naming ceremony, marriage ceremony, Tobaski/Koriteh feast. On occasions like Bannasaàlo (Tobaski), Jalis are hosted and received in our compound as early as 6am to 7am.

Their melodious voices and the unique tunes of Kora would wake one up from bed. Listening to Kora today revokes the nostalgic feeling of the presence of our ancestors whose love and unconditional attachment to Kora remained a driving force for my unapologetic love for the Jalis and traditional music. 

My respect for the Jalis and their indispensable role in our society was shaped by the attitude of my parents who used to open their box/ luggage, pull out the best of their clothes and happily give it to the Jalis with smiles. In addition to gracing our compound on the occasion like Banasolo, the elderly men among the Jalis take upon themselves to lead us to the praying ground (salikeratoo).

This ritual is mutually respected by both the Jalis and their Batufas. This was manifested when one of the Jalis turned out late to lead people to the praying ground in one of the Banasolo. Upon his arrival to where people converge to leave for the praying ground, this Jali realized the crowd included Sannehs, and he remorsefully told my father:  I don’t know what I will explain to my ancestors, if I have left you to go to the praying ground without being accompanied by a Jali, as they would never leave a Mansa to  go to praying  ground without their Jalis.

This incident served as an unforgettable lesson for me; hence I came to realize   the value of griots in our society. However today we hardly see such value in ‘Jaliya’ (praise singing) as we continue discounts on their functions in our societies.

Ali nga atuu a’nyamaa nga adoò-lu balu-nding (Let us leave our culture, as it is to sustain it).

Editor’s note: Views expressed in this opinion piece are entirely the author’s opinion and they do not represent the views of Kerr Fatou.


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