Griots of Africa

Other than in Egypt, there are almost no written stories that tell the tales of the many ancient African tribes and kingdoms. A majority of these groups depended upon storytellers called “griots” to pass information down from one generation to the next.

Almost all villages had their own griot, and they played the part of both the messenger and entertainer.
A Hausa Griot performs at Diffa

The griot was typically a man that related the tales of their religious spirits as well as their mythical gods and battle stories.


Griots played the part of historians for their village or tribe. Many of the stories that they told related to famous battles, while others had moral messages that were used for children to learn bad and good behavior and how they should act to be a part of their village.

The griot was responsible for memorizing and keeping track of their village history. This was a major job because it included all births, marriages, deaths, battles and wars, droughts, and any other important event that had an effect on their tribe.

The stories told by the griots were often the only record of everything that had happened for many generations.

Griots and Music:

In some villages the griot was also a musician and played a variety of instruments. This helped in the telling of the stories and made it easier for everyone to remember.
Mandinka Griot Al-Haji Papa Susso performing songs from the oral tradition of the Gambia on the kora

The griots would play their instruments and often sing the stories. The most popular instrument that griots used included:

  • A stringed instruments called a “kora” (something like a harp). It was most often made from a kind of large squash called “calabash” that was sliced in half and then covered with animal skin. The neck of the instrument was made of one of the hard woods. The kora usually had around 21 keys.
  • A wooden instrument that was like a xylophone called a “balafon” that was a percussion instrument made of wood with as many as 27 keys. Each key was struck with a rubber or wooden mallet.
  • A small lute called a “ngoni” and was made from hollowed out wood that had animal skin stretched out over the opening. It had from 5-6 strings that the griot would pluck with both fingers and thumb to play.

Many of the villagers knew that a story was going to be told when they heard the rattling or tone of a musical instrument.

This was the signal for everyone to gather round to listen to stories and to be entertained.

  • Although most griots were men, there were some female griots. The women that were griots specialized in their singing abilities.
  • “Jeli” is another name for the griot.
  • While griots were often feared for their magical powers and well-respected, they were considered to be in a low ranking ancient African caste.
  • In the Mali Empire, they placed griots as a more important role when they brought them in as part of the royal group. In some cases, the griot would act as a spokesperson or even counselor for their king or emperor.
  • When various villages had disagreements or problems, the griot might step in as a mediator to help resolve issues.
  • Historians think that the ngoni instrument transitioned into the banjo as they were brought to America from West African slaves.

Importance of the Griot:

Griots were known for telling stories of the many gods and goddesses that the various ancient African cultures worshipped. If any village made an attempt to steal the griot from another village, it could be a cause for a battle or war.

Griots never did manual labor, as their job was to tell stories that the entire village would benefit from.

The tradition of the ancient African griot continues to today. Many areas of Africa have traveling griots that go from one village to the next to tell stories, sing songs, and entertain.


What was the main job of the griot?

to tell stories from one generation to the next

What was another name for a griot?


What were the three most popular instruments played by the griots?

kora, balafon, ngoni

Why were griots sometimes feared?

they were thought to be magical

What might happen if one village tried to steal the griot of another village?

a battle or war

Other than telling historical stories and entertaining, what other responsibilities did giots have?

remembering all important events of the people of the village