Here in Senegal, relationships between families are of the utmost importance and ceremonies that refresh such relationships are the most valued and anticipated. These ceremonies, which usually revolve around weddings and births, are a chance for people to have fun and catch up with family members they haven’t seen for long periods of time. A while back I attended one such ceremony… a “nguente” (pronounced ngen-tay) or baby naming ceremony of a friend who had had a baby.
For Muslim families in Senegal, when a baby is born, no name is given until one week after it takes its first breath of air. An Imam then comes to the house, verses from the Koran are recited, and the baby’s name is given. This is the smaller, religious portion of the naming ceremony called a “tudu”. About a month later, a big festive party with extreme gift giving and food eating and singing and dancing and celebrating happens. All of the relatives of the new parents come into town and celebrate the baby and strengthen the ties between the families. This is particularly important because in Senegal, most women move to their husband’s family’s house when they get married and the celebration is a chance for the wife’s whole family to get to know the husband’s.
The role of griots at these ceremonies is a vital one. They are present to animate the ceremony by singing family histories, playing sabar drums, and acting as spokespeople throughout the day. This clip was taken in the morning of the nguente when the family of the baby’s namesake arrived with lots of gifts as well as huge amounts of a special sweet creamy food called lakh. In the clip, different griot women are singing the praises of those who brought the gifts as well as celebrating the new birth and the ties between families.
At a nguente, the griot’s role as a spokesperson is also important. In the past in Senegal, griots acted as a conduit between noble ruling families and the general public. While the importance and role of nobility in Senegal has changed, to this day you see griots acting as the oral representatives for families at ceremonies.
At this nguente, three different families were represented: the wife’s side who came from afar with their family griot, the husband’s family with their griot, and the family of the baby’s namesake which also had their own griot. Each family came laden with lots and lots of gifts to lavish on each other… In the evening, the nguente party split in two, with older women exchanging gifts on one side and younger people dancing to sabar rhythms on the other side. On the gift exchange side, along with a brief speech, each gift was announced one by one to the party by the particular family’s griot spokeswoman. The photo below shows the namesake’s family griot presenting baby outfits to the husband’s family via their griot spokeswoman.
For months to come, these families will continue to talk about the fine fabric that was given to all of the husband’s sisters, how many baby outfits were given by the namesake’s family, the amount of lakh that was presented, the amount of embroidery the new mother’s dress had, etc. Ceremonies like these become very important social and familial obligations and the gift giving along with oral recitation and song are what makes these events special for people. None of this would be possible without the participation of griots… I will mention that the griots know very well their value and expect and receive generous compensation for their oration. Their storytelling and singing (and sometimes social pressure) moves people to give them money.
So what the heck does this have to do with hip-hop? Well, in some ways, absolutely nothing. These women are not rapping and as you can see from my previous post, the hip-hop scene in Senegal bears no resemblance to what you see in this video. Hip-hop and the griot tradition fulfill totally different social roles for people. These women are essentially, however, using their language to tell a story and rhyming over the simple beat (played on an upside down wash basin and metallic bowl—so cool!)– An equation that is also at the basis of rapping. Some people parallel the role of griots as spokespeople to the way that rappers in Senegal are conduits of information and represent the voice and experience of the general public. I am interested in finding out what rappers and griots alike think about this role and relationship.
Whether the link between griots and rap and hip-hop in Senegal is direct or indirect, their common importance highlights the vital role of oral tradition that forms and affirms Senegalese identity.