Afrika’s tales, triumphs and failures are etched in our bodies, in our souls. They ooze out of our pores in poetry, art, song, dance, music. They are carved in our mothers’ and fathers’ wrinkles and calloused hands – untold. They live in our conscious and subconscious memories… Many like to think that our story only began with the ‘white explorers’; they like to say that only with the arrival of the written word did we record our story. Of course, so much is a mystery about darkest Afrika, but that is only because she prefers it so. You see, Afrika sends out her story in a way that is relevant to her people and so Afrikans sing, dance, make music and art – and she lets them think it’s only to cope with our miseries and celebrate our joys.
Alhaji Papa Susso, a griot and poet, attended the Poetry Afrika (2006) bringing with him stories older than time. A griot is the keeper of a peoples story going as far back as thousands of years.
Poetry Potion: Tell us about your name?
Alhaji Pappa Susso: Alhaji means pilgrim, a Muslim man who makes the journey (the Hajj) to Mecca, it means you have completed the five pillars of Islam. Pappa: it is part of our tradition that when you have children one of your sons should be named after their [paternal] grandfather to keep his spirit in the family. Now the father of the son cannot call the name of his father directly, it is disrespectful – so my father would call me Pappa. And everyone got used to the name Pappa.
Poetry Potion: What is a griot?
Papa Susso: A griot is an oral historian of West Afrika. We come from the Mandikas, the descendents of the old Mali Empire, centred in Timbuktu (Mali). When the empire died some of them migrated to Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Ivory Coast. Griots have a very important role to play; they are people who we rely on to keep the history of a people through music. They play a 21-string instrument, the kora, passed down from generation to generation. You have to come from a family of griots and you only marry another griot. So, traditionally you learn how to play from your father or your brother, it is by heredity.
Poetry Potion: Is it only men?
Papa Susso: No, we have female griots with a different role. It is the duty of a male griot to play the instrument and narrate the histories of the people while the female griot sings and dances in accompaniment. She learns from her mother.
Poetry Potion: What is the role of a griot?
Alhaji Pappa Susso: A griot composes commemorative songs and performs at important tribal ceremonies like weddings, naming of the child and rituals. A griot can come to you and say ‘I’ve come to sing praises to you.’ And he will create a song that praises your family, you are expected to give him something in return but if you don’t he will go and compose insulting songs about you and your family. You can’t even take him to court because a griot has the right to say anything about anyone.
Poetry Potion: Is there still a place for a griot in the 21st century?
Alhaji Pappa Susso: Yes, the griot is still strong in my country (Gambia).
Griots like elders, izimbongi, izangoma and izanusi have been in existence since time immemorial – recording our history, speaking out against social ills, celebrating our greatness, carrying our culture and traditions into the future. In other Afrikan countries, these people are still held in high esteem while in others if they are demonised and have almost disappeared into the past. In West Afrika, the Mandika people (also known as the Mandingo) revere, respect and raise griots. Alhaji Pappa Susso has also recorded two albums and continues to tour and perform all over the world.