webAfriqa/History & Culture/Summer Institute for Maryland Teachers/Fulbe and Mande Civlizations
Presentation at the Summer Institute for Maryland Educators
University of Maryland at College Park
Center for Renaissance & Baroque Studies
Crossing Borders/Breaking Boundaries
The Arts and Artistic Legacies of the West African Civilizations, 700-1600 C.E.
July 21, 2006
Tierno S. Bah
The Mali Empire
In the introduction I highlighted the succession and continuity between the three great West African empires and the entwined destiny of the Fulbe and Mande.
I shall discuss now some aspects of the cultural and musical legacies of the Mali Empire.
Kante (Soso) Blacksmiths vs. Keita (Mande) Hunters
As the Ghana hegemony continued to decline, a power struggle for control and supremacy erupted between Sumanguru Kante, the King of Soso, masters of the fire and blacksmiths, on one hand, and the Keita hunters of the Mande, on the other.
The Mande society comprised three socioeconomic groups with their internal subgroups and castes :
- Horon. Aristocrats
- Nyamakala. Crafstpeople (Blacksmith, Hunter, Griots, etc.)
- Jon. Slaves
First published in the 1961 Pr. Djibril Tamsire Niane textbook publication, “Sunjata, the Epic of the Mande”, remains a reference work in the study of Mande civilization. He was demonstrated the power of the Griots, Masters of the Words, are able to perpetuate the achievements and the legacy of that society.
At the memorable Lagos FESTAC ’77 and on the eve of the opening ceremony, a fitting tribute was paid to the Mande Griots and the civilization they carry on. At a private ceremony for the attending Heads of state, the presidents and cabinet members were serenated by Sory Kandia Kouyate, during a two-hour solo performance.
And when the competition got under way, two countries —Guinea and Mali— wooed the public with exceptional performances of the Epic of Sunjata. Guinea showcased its star mezzo-soprano and Master Griot, Sori Kandia Kouyate, of the famous Ballets Africains. Mali opted, instead, for 5 solo singers, who took turn in narrating crescendo the heroic and the legendary deeds of Sunjata.
Here is how the artist Ibra Papa Tall sums up the Sunjata Epic (Sunjata-Fasa).
A Griot tells the Epic of Sunjata with the help of the Kora (Mande harp).
Sumanguru Kante and Sunjata; the mighty king vs.the cripple child
and miracle athletic prince.
On the eve of the Krina battle, Sunjata’s sister, Nana Triban, joins her brother.
Sunjata and his imperial court.
Mansa Musa the Magnificent, a Sunjata successor.
Mansa Musa leaves Niani for pilgrimage to Mecca
Mansa Musa and his suite arrive in Cairo during their pilgrmage to pMecca.
Blacksmiths and hunters are two of the most powerful ruling groups and castes in Mande culture and history. Healers, shamans, sorcerers, magicians, they are endowed with supernatural powers and control over natural elements (fire, wind, water) and animals. This gives them a special rights and/or claimsto leadership. Sunjata was obviously a brave general. However, he might not have defeated Sumanguru, had he not learned about the occult shield of Sumanguru and how to overcome it.
The powers of the blacksmith and the hunters survived the Mali empire. In The Black Child, Camara Laye recounts vividly the relationship of his family with its totem, a black snake. The Kamajors militiamen of Sierra-Leone are Mande hunters. Invoking their mysterious powers, they played a key role in ending the civil war.
Sumanguru Kante was defeated militarily, and his people confined to a lesser historical standing. However, he has survived in the collective memory of the Mande. And his name and legacy are inseparable from those of Sunjata. The interwoven and interdependent roles (The Evil vs. The Good) are part of the historical narrative and legendary tall tale.
Take the Soso-Bala for instance. The invention of this Mande xylophone was credited to Sumanguru Kante. Today, the Soso-Bala is one of the most cherished symbols of Mande civilization.
On 18 March 2001, UNESCO recognized objects and traditions from 19 countries for their universal value. Sosso Balla is among those “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. The others African recipients are:
- The Oral Heritage of Gelede (Benin, Nigeria, Togo)
- The Gbofe of Afounkaha : the Music of the Transverse Trumpets of the Tagbana Community, Côte d’Ivoire
- The Cultural Space of Djamaa el-Fna Square, Morocco
What is Soso-Bala?
The guardianship of the Sosso-Bala coincides with the area occupied by the Dökala family in the village of Nyagassola in Guinea. The Sosso-Bala is a sacred instrument. The guardian of the instrument is the Balatigui. Even he, can only play the Sosso-Bala on certain occasions: Muslim New Year and certain burials. He also teaches the balafon to children from the age of seven upwards. The Sosso-Bala, accompanies stage performances about the West African Middle Ages. Its music celebrates the glory of the Keita dynasty of Mali empire and its enemy: Soumanguru Kantè.
The Soso-Bala has 20 wood slats (bala-kise), ranging from the longest (0,75 m) to the shortest (0,45 m). Ordinary balafons have 17 slats. It measures 0,32 m x 3m in height. The support is 1,24 m x 0,49 m. Twenty resonance chambers or echo gourds attach to the slats.
The lyrics accompanying the performance of the Bala are codified. Traditionists say that they are identical to the originals composed from the 13th century. Based on tradition, Soso-Bala is played only Monday and on Friday
The Niagassola traditional guardians strive to retain the animist version of the Epic, and only superficially borrow from islamic sources.
The repertoire of the Soso-Bala includes epic songs such as:
The Griots: active carriers of the Mande Civilization.
Some famous names 20th century Griots
- Bazumana Cissoko (Mali)
- Soundioulou Cissoko (Senegal)
- Kouyate Sori Kandia (Guinea)
- Sidikiba Diabate (Mali)
- Mori Kanté (Guinea)
Non-Griots performers carriers of Mande civilizations
- Salif Keita: a descendant of Sunjata Keita
- Oumou Sangaré
Wasolon Fula and Malian diva
The Mande civilization is a vital component of the African cultural landscape. It is widely acknowledged and published around the world.
In 2002, educational authorities and institutions in the USA decided to fill the gap between Pre-slavery and Slavery by including the legacy of the Mali Empire in school curriculae
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