Children learning to play a musical instrument and the Griot guiding them

The Passing Down of Musical Knowledge in the Culture of Mali

The passing down of musical knowledge as culture is an article about how children of Mali acquire musical knowledge and skills in the informal setting of home.

In the first place, music plays an important role in the daily lives of the people of Mali in West Africa. Thus, Mali is famous for its musical tradition which dates back to the 13th Century. And despite a lack of literature in music, Mali’s oral music has survived into the 21st Century. In fact, the rich musical history of Mali lies in the hands of the Griot. But what is a Griot ? And what impact does the Griot have on Malian  music? 

The Role of the Griot in the Passing Down of Musical Knowledge

Griots tell a story through a musical instrument.

The Griot is known for passing down music knowledge from one generation to the next. The nature of a Griot in Mali is like that of a performing artist. Consequently , a Griot is known as a storyteller, entertainer, and historian, all wrapped in one. In other words, they are the engine of the nation because they preserve the culture and define the social lives of the people of Mali.

In essence, the Griots trace their history to the 13th Century in the powerful pre-colonial empires. And have been telling their stories ever since to keep the Mali tradition alive. Generally speaking, the Griots tell stories through music using a variety of musical instruments. Contrary to the threat that globalization puts to oral African tradition, the Griots in Mali continue to pass  down music knowledge and skills to their own children.

The Designated Griots of Malian Society 

The children of Mali show a high level of music knowledge and learning in a home setting.

As the illustration above states, clearly it is through music enculturation that Mali’s legacy of culture in music exists.  And for this reason, the passing down of skills and knowledge from the Griot to the children is second nature. After all, the Griots know and understand their role and gladly fulfill the role without hesitation. Hence, the children of Mali show a high level of musical abilities from an early age.

In this instance, the Griot encourage  their children to learn verbal and musical skills at an early age. Owing to this, music enculturation is personal in Mali. Thus, there is a vibrant culture of live music in the homes of the Griots. As a result, the children absorb and learn music in a home setting where  the elders guide them through music and the children learn through their peers’ corrections.

Children gather around the Griot to learn Music Knowledge and Skills.

Large numbers of children that consist of brothers,sisters and cousins gathered to learn music knowledge

Accordingly,  families of the Griot all around the village send their children to stay with the Griot during school’s holidays. The children gather in large groups and learn from each other under the guidance of the Griot. For the Mande and Bobo of Mali, only the boys play the musical instruments, while the girls sing and dance. This division of gender is fairly acceptable in West Africa but more evident in Griot families.

Similarly, music is one of the hobbies of the children of Mali, which they learn  by listening, watching, imitating and participating. The group of children consists of toddlers, brothers, sisters, and cousins from the ages of three to twelve.

Children within Malian Griots

Children of the Griots imitating gestures of drumming during rehearsals.

In Mali, every child counts because it is through enculturation that the tradition still exists thus far. Therefore, all children of the Griots learn music from an early age. Even though they are not able to play musical instruments as toddlers, their ears absorb the grammar and structures.

Likewise, children learn by doing. During rehearsals, the toddler imitates the gestures of drumming that are characterized by moving of hands left to right. Whereas, the older children listen to each other while playing until they find the right tempo. In this regard, the Griot only guides the children when it is necessary and does not conduct them. The Griot also nurture children’s talent by constantly playing music with them and passing words of encouragement from time to time.

Ways and Methods the Griot Applies to Pass down Musical Knowledge

A Griot holding a drum in order to encourage children to participate, thereby passing down Musical Knowledge to children

Significantly, there is no set of notes or written material that the Griot relies on to pass music knowledge and skills to young ones. As a matter of fact, the Griot does not concern himself with how the children are going to learn music. For this , the Griot only concerns himself with why the children must learn music, which in this instance, is to preserve Mali traditions. Hence, he encourages every child to participate in music in order for them to be better Griots in the future.

During rehearsals, children sit with adults  who sing a couple of local songs to get in the mood. The children pick different kinds of musical instruments to practice. While singing the local songs, the Griot will then encourage children to take turns playing a solo act, either singing or playing a riff on a musical instrument. While the music is playing in the background, he will ask the children to repeat what they were playing or singing.

Modes of Transmission during the Passing Down of Musical Knowledge 

Children learn the movement first by playing drums during the passing down of music skills.

If the children hit the wrong note or sing out of tune, the Griot does not correct them. Instead, he lets them go on as long as the child can get the movement right. For the Griot, the most important thing to instil in a young Griot is confidence first. In this way, the children learn the movement first until it becomes second nature and they play without thinking. After that, the children will hear that they are hitting the wrong note or singing out of tune and correct themselves .

But if it happens that the child persists in playing out of tune, the other children will correct him or her, until they blend in the sound. Therefore, the Griot encourages motor movement and, confidence first among children and worry less about pitch, which will eventually sort itself through peer correction.

The Inheritance of Talent and the Pursuit of Musical Knowledge 

A child learning to play music with his father at a wedding celebration.

Not only do Griot’s children learn music in a home setting. They also learn by interaction with siblings, and accompanying their parents to wedding gatherings. For this reason, talent is nurtured in a highly rich musical environment under the guidance of the parents. In all of this music absorption,  there is constant and positive encouragement to lay down the foundation of confidence.

Children of Mali grow up knowing they are musicians and therefore acquire these skills consciously. The inherent quality is evident in Mali. For instance, a child in Mali kicks a ball for one minute and the next he puts the ball inside his knees and hits it with both hands.

Although there is limited literature on music in Mali, the music talent the children display is of high quality and astonishingly high. And this is due to the fact that they grew up in music. The purpose being to master music skills and, obviously, pass the knowledge to others in the future. As a result, literacy has a lower rate, but notably, the children of the Griots  turn into superstars in the music industry. As a matter of fact, Mali has high-profile successful musicians who have won international music awards in the past decades.

But what is the underlying magic that makes the Griots go on and on , passing music knowledge and skills except an obligation endorsed with? From my observations,  I think the musical instruments that the Griots play have an impact on the continuation of the tradition. The following six musical instruments play a big role in Malian culture.

Djembe, a Tool for Transmitting Skills and Knowledge 

A West African drum called a Djembe  able to tell stories and is used for passing music knowledge to children.

A Djembe is a drum originally from West Africa.  The people of Mali build the body of the Djembe with hardwood and cover the drum beat with goat skin. According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name Djembe stems from the saying ” Anke die, anke be”, which means ‘ everyone must gather together in peace’. The name also signifies the purpose of the drum, which, in this instance, is the children of the Griots families who gather in groups to learn music skills.

The Djembe is famously known as the talking drum because of its ability to produce  a wide range of  mind-blowing sounds. Another notable feature , is the ability to be heard louder as a solo instrument over other instruments in a performance. The name ‘talking drum’ derives from the drum’s ability  to tell stories. The children play the drum in order to master how to tell stories that matter to the Malians.


The 21 string Kora that Griot children learn to play from an early age.

The Kora is  an instrument which consists of twenty-one strings. This instrument  is used extensively in West Africa. The children of Mali play it by plucking fingers at the strings. To build the Kora, one needs a large calabash, cut it in half, and then cover it with cow skin. Looking closely, the instrument combines the features of the lute and harp. Although the Griot associate themselves with the Kora, the instrument originally came from the Gambia.

Traditionally, the Kora strings were made from thin stripes of hide such as cow or antelope. Nowadays, you can use harp strings or nylon fishing line to make the strings.. The twenty-one strings of the Kora are divided into two sections. There are eleven strings for the left hand and ten strings for the right hand. Arguably, the Kora looks like a difficult instrument to play. I guess that’s why the Griot surrounds the children with music from an early age in order to master the Kora.


The traditional guitar of Mali known as Ngoni.

The Ngoni is a string instrument also known as the traditional guitar of Mali. You either make the Ngoni from wood or dried goat animal skin. The Griot plays The Ngoni at wedding celebrations to tell stories. The instrument is vital for singing traditional songs . And for this reason, the Griots associate the Ngoni with ceremonies and include the instrument in passing music knowledge.


The Balafon instrument used across cultures in Mali.

The making of a Balafon instrument takes several processes. To make a Balafon, the Griot cuts wood and dries it slowly over a low flame while turning and shaving bits of wood. Then, when the wood is ready, the Griot flattens the wood to make keys. There is an option to either have fixed or free keys which produce eighteen to twenty-one notes.

As the Balafon varies in making, so does the culture vary in terms of usage. In other areas, the Balafon is important for ritual purposes. While the Griots play the instrument in concerts to entertain. However, in other cultures, the Balafon is a sacred instrument which a chosen religious person plays. In this instance, the player keeps the Balafon in a temple and only removes and plays it after undergoing purification.


A xalam is played by Griots in weddings.

The Xalam is an oval shaped instrument. To make it, you need wood, cow hide, and strings. Usually, the maker of  Xakam uses  nylon fishing lines to make strings. Consequently, only the male Griot can play a Xalam. And in this instance, the Griot use the Xakam to praise in songs and to recite history, most especially in weddings or child naming ceremonies.


A Dunun is a drum played by Griots

A Dunun is a West African drum that falls under the tree of musical instruments  such as a Djembe.  To create it, the creator needs wood , a rope, and rawhide of a  cow or goat skin. Unlike the Djembe where children play with both hands, the children use sticks to play a Dunun. The sticks vary in shape depending on region preferences. The kinds of sticks to use for playing can either be plain and straight, or curved with a flat head, or straight with a cylindrical head attached to it. The players of a Dunun position the drum horizontally beforehand as it was done before. The sound that comes from the Dunun sounds like the name itself. The Griot  commonly plays the Dunun. Hence, the people of Mali sometimes refer to it as a ‘jeli’ ( Griot) drum.

The Significance of music in Anthropology 

The way Malians hold on to their culture is rare and unique. For Malians, music is culture and a package that comes with many possibilities. In the case of the people of Mali, music brings them together as part of nation building where historians entertain and educate. As a result, the Griots, which date back centuries, always cement culture through music and also initiate the next generation of Griots.

The significance of the music of  Mali in anthropology clearly shows that music is a tool capable of creating social , economic, and political cohesion between people . Most notably, music is a vehicle that connects the past and present and, likewise, a culture that is shared with the rest of the world. 


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