The West African Jali

The jali, a griot of West Africa, is a highly trained historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician, who delivers oral history through song. The songs can last hours and days as the musicians recall extensive details of the personal history of an important figure or family, religion, war, slavery, colonization, or any aspect of their own society’s history or that of the global beyond. “I can tell you the history of everything, Africa, India, China, everything. But you must come when you have time to listen,” Gambian jali Alhaji Fabala told Samuel Charters, author of The Roots of the Blues. A Gambian elder also told Charters that the jali has magical powers — his ability to learn, integrate, and recall enormous amounts of information is unique to the jali alone. “The griots know all about what has happened. All. They don’t be like natural men. They don’t breathe when they talk.”

The jali, while able to demonstrate faultless recall of traditional songs, is also formidable in his capacity to improvise verses based on current events, including the details of the very moment in which he sings. The Jali is essentially a singing history book — a living archive of the people’s traditions — while also a clever and talented poet who can update history as it reveals itself in the present.

Instrumentation is at the heart of the jali’s transmission, and the main instruments used by the jalis and/or their accompanists are the kora (large 21-string gord-bodied plucking lute), the khalam and goje (smaller variations of the kora), the balafon (wooden xylophone), and the ngoni (banjo-like instrument played with a bow). The rhythms, tones, moods, melodies, and scales played on these instruments — as well as the instruments themselves — are precedent to those of the American blues. Musical traditions brought from West Africa during the slave trade of the 17th and 18th century synthesized with the music of the European colonists, creating the sound we know now as modern blues music.

There’s a great album called Mali To Memphis: An African-American Odyssey, a compilation which shows the cultural connection of West African music and American blues. The Delta blues tracks from John Lee Hooker and Jessie Mae Hemphill reflect the tribal rhythms of several of the Malian tracks, while Taj Mahal’s Queen Bee parallels the bright vocal lines, guitar harmony, and melodic leads of Malian artists Amadou & Mariam’s Mon Amour, Mon Cherie. It is fascinating to hear the common ancestor that modern West African music shares with modern African-American music — that of the jali, and other cultural and tribal musical styles and traditions of West Africa.



Photo By MataHali (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]