A griot, jali or jeli is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician. In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) in northern Mande areas; jali in southern Mande areas; guewel in Wolof; or gawlo in Pulaar (Fula).
The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a societal leader due to his traditional position as an advisor to royal personages. As a result of the former of these two functions, he is sometimes also called a bard.
According to Paul Oliver in his book Savannah Syncopators, “Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable”. Although they are popularly known as “praise singers”, griots may use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.
Francis Bebey writes about the griot in his book African Music, A People’s Art: “The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel… The griot knows everything that is going on… He is a living archive of the people’s traditions… The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle.”