The first thing to know about this word is that it does not rhyme with riot. And, though g is sometimes an email abbreviation for grin or grinning, and the act of saying this word might bring to mind a grin (or Tony the Tiger’s grrrreat), it is not a word for a grin riot, which would be like a quiet laugh riot. And speaking of Quiet Riot, it’s also not a word for a musical group.
Well, or, in fact, in a way, it is. And while a griot may not be a grin riot, he may cause one.
But let me turn back to the word itself first. It’s pronounced as French; it rhymes with rio, or, for that matter, with Krio, which is more to the point, since Krio is a creole language spoken in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and its name comes from creole, and griot for its part also comes from creole – I don’t mean it’s derived from the word creole, though it does sound like it; I just mean that as far as we can tell it comes from Portuguese criado “servant” by way of West African creoles. And then through French guiriot. That is not an etymology on which everyone will agree – oh, no; but one does need a story, you know.
Yes, every woman needs her story and every man needs his story, and history is one thing griots specialize in. Political commentary is another. Poetry and praise-songs also come into it. They need to know many long history songs, and they also need to be able to extemporize to suit the situation. You know those wandering minstrels and court jesters that one sees in depictions of medieval towns and courts? Griots are that sort of thing. Except that they’re in West Africa, they still exist, and they are in the main a separate endogamous caste – griots marry other members of their griot clan, and so on, and so on, and they are the only ones in their societies who do what they do (I mean sing history and praise-songs and political satire and so on).
In our current European-based societies, with electronic communication and large cities and so on, the roles a griot would play are filled by many different parties variously well – TV shows with satire and commentary, musicians on the radio and on CD, and so on. But griots can tailor to specific situations, and they come with specific local knowledge.
Which is why Alex Haley found griot accounts so useful when he was tracing his own ancestry for his book Roots. Living memory of history! And of his own particular ancestor, or so at least he thought. It turns out that tailoring to the situation may have come into it as well, though; while the stories he heard of Kunta Kinte no doubt gave a good view of life in that time and place, the specifics were not necessarily literally reliable for that specific individual.
Ah, but how is that any worse than the “history” presented for us by movies today? I think of Bottle Shock, a movie about the 1976 wine tasting in Paris in which California wines prevailed. One of the central subjects of the movie, Stephen Spurrier, has said “There is hardly a word that is true in the script and many, many pure inventions as far as I am concerned.” And even our accepted histories may have some filling in – I am put in mind of the words of the father of modern historical writing, Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War: “With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”
The word griot may put one in mind of a couple of others – perhaps French rigote or rigolo, “funny” or “joker”, which a griot may be at times, or Goriot, the name of a character by Honoré de Balzac, who in his role as depictor of his society with all its flaws served one of the roles of a griot. But in truth griot is not the word griots will necessarily use to name themselves. It’s not from a West African language, after all (of which, by the way, there are many, and quite diverse at that – some effectively unrelated to one another). If you wish to use a word they use for themselves, jali or jeli is what is used in languages of the Mande family, guewel in Wolof, gawlo in Fula, and igiiw in Hassaniyya Arabic. Now enjoy tasting those words too!