Monday, 28 July 2014

Magic for beginners: The Griot (or The Magic of Words)

[Translated from the original spanish entry by Nuria. Thank you Nuria!!]

We got to the end of our adventure.

(Aaaaaaawww, I can hear you shouting out of disappointment. But I just meant our adventure… in the traditional villages of Senegal ;-))

After spending the night at the police station…!

(Guys, if you don’t keep it down I can’t move on! Goodness me, you are really pushing it today! It is true, though, that I went a bit too far ahead of the story… Let’s go back then!)

When we said goodbye to the villagers who had treated us so well, we left without The Fighter. Already purified over ritual baths, protected by his gri-gri and honouring his hot-headed character (“all of you fighters are crazy”, he greeted the wizard!), he headed back to Dakar in the hope that he would get his wife back and he wouldn’t be caught again dressed up as a woman and saying weird things in the river…

Problem is that I had run out of water the night before, so I’d been drinking from the well whose water had been boiled in the all-sorts-of-old-flavours-tasting pot and just kindly “filtered” for me with the first t-shirt they grabbed. Add that to the smoked taste of firewood, and that water was… it was… the opposite of an add by Coca-Cola, to put it mildly. So when we arrived in Fatick and I spotted an ATM (we also had run out of money, hehe), I leaped on it and, as soon as I left, I started dropping that delicious liquid to the four winds while shouting “we are rich” and “no more misery” while Pape was roaring with laughter!

Good stories of my journey. But we were not caught by the police because of that! Basically Pape bumped into a friend who was on his night shift that night at the police station, and since he was on his own, we made him company over tea and slept “locked up” in the police mosquito net. 

(Sorry, back to the point… Let’s talk about African minstrels, the great storytellers, and about dynasties… the griots!)

We need to wake up early today as we’ll finally arrive in Diakhaw, the historical capital of the Kingdom of Sine (from the ethnic group of Serer), whose royal family are the ancestors of… my friend Pape! And because we belong to the family, we gain access to the grounds of the old Palaces, surrounding the Baobab and the tombs of the legendary kings who had ruled over this region since the 14th century. But we didn’t come here to see some tombs. We came to see this lovable woman.

It’s my great honour to introduce you to Princess Coumbody, daughter of Mahecor, the last King of Sine. And as you can see from the picture… she actually looks like him!

It is touching to hear this woman saying that for his whole childhood she couldn’t cry. Although it was not due to obligations of the post, but because “my dad was so good, he loved us so much, that commanded for us to have everything we wanted: clothes, sweets, toys… And I remember how the griot would take me over his lap and tell me the most amazing stories until I would fall asleep. It’s only now, when I see that my sons and grandsons won’t be able to enjoy the same life of absolute happiness I had, when I really feel like crying…”

And just to avoid the ocean coming through the beautiful blue eyes of this last Princess of legend, I take out my phone to show her the picture of her cousin, Pape’s grandma (to whom we went to ask for permission in Dakar to attend the rituals, and who suggested us to do the “sweet” sacrifice of inviting children in the neighbourhood for lunch). What is my reaction when I see her taking my phone over and kissing the screen, a great expression of happiness on her face. (My grandma, la Elvi, could have done exactly the same thing ;-) )

We leave her memories behind and the Palace too, looking for N’ deye Faye, a griot we heard about because of her great musical talent. However, we could have never imagined she was actually going to sing for us the history of Coumbody, the last Princess of Sine!!!

Pape is genuinely touched. He couldn’t believe he would be able to gather the best griot women in the historical capital to sing about the feats of his family. The magic in those words and music are touching a secret fibre inside him, a fibre that connects him to his ancestors, his land and, if may say, to the millenary oral tradition of the African continent (and Mankind!).

N’ deye Faye’s powerful voice revives in front of us not only the wise King Mahecor, but also Coumbody’s mother, and the father of her mother who fought for his ancestors’ beliefs and for freedom in the bloody battle against the Muslims who wanted to impose their religion. Her voice, supported by her partner sitting next to her and repeated in a surrounding eco by the other two, is as if Ceddo was being projected in front of us, a movie by the great Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène (you have to watch Xala, by the way).

And after she finishes, she also begins to recall her childhood and tells us about how her father (last official griot of one King of Sine) used to leave the house early to gather the rest of the royalty griots over the rhythm of his drums to sing at the gates of the Palace, which however they wouldn’t be allowed to enter. Or how her grandfather used to wake her up some times in the middle of the night to test her on the genealogies they’d been studying during the day. “But what I liked the most was to help the griot women in the family so that I could learn their songs and have fun singing with them”.

“I got married and went to live with my husband, an amazing griot too, but I didn’t work as a griot. It was only after the death of my husband, because I needed to feed my children, that I started to go back to the old words and rhythms, and started to sing at weddings or baptisms from families that were linked to my family as griots. And every time I sing and bring the old stories back, I feel the same joy I had as a child. I think I’ve always wanted to be a griot…”

We say goodbye in fascination. As we are leaving, Pape, who is still impressed, tells me that he cannot believe how I dared to ask them about the “burials” inside the Baobab! This is one of the most enigmatic facts about the “caste” of griots. So close to royalty, but at the same time with so many rules to remind them about their inferiority. In the royal family’s environment we had been told that if a griot was buried like the others, the land would turn infertile. Something they could not confirm is if that was meant to be derogatory, but N’ deye’s version is quite different:

“Only the greatest griots were granted the post-mortem right to have their bodies sheltered inside the trunk of the Holy Baobab.” And it seems that his grandparents’ generation was the last one to be granted that honour.

So I grin at Pape and leave thinking that only big poets, those who have the power to revive the great feats of their ancestors, deserve to be close to their God, embraced by the Holy Baobab…

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