Senegalese storytelling

Griot explores the link between music and Africa’s oral culture

The name Ablaye Cissoko may not mean much to those who aren’t tuned into the obscure world of African kora music but if German trumpeter Volker Goetze has anything to do with it that’s about to change.

Cissoko is a soulful singer and impassioned master of the kora (a 21-stringed lute-like instrument) but he is better known as a griot — a West African bard who passes on age-old stories through his haunting hymns. Goetze not only began recording with Cissoko he he also became obsessed with telling the Senegalese songsmith’s story.

While sitting beside French-speaking Cissoko during a recent interview to promote his documentary Griot Goetze says the two bonded nearly instantly. In a faded German accent (he’s now based in New York) the jazz artist-turned-director explains the film’s humble beginnings. “My idea was to take a camera with me [during the recording of their hit sophomore album Amanké Dionti ] and see what I could [capture]. Then I walked through a bookstore and found a [book about Ablaye] and I discovered… all this history of what he’s born into and I was just fascinated by how a living oral culture and history works. For me it just opened another universe.”

That new universe opened thanks to a chance meeting in 2001 but by the time the documentary was in production the encounter had eventually opened Goetze’s eyes to Cissoko’s extended family. It also gave him the inspiration to explore the griot’s role from a western culture’s perspective.

After all the griot isn’t just a simple storyteller in Senegalese culture; he is something of a spiritual figure and community leader — his multi-generational tales embedded with forgotten values concerning family compassion and respect.

“I think it’s a very important role — how oral cultures or traditions are passed on” says Goetze who further explains that griots are invariably tied to music. “If you’re born into a certain family all your children learn to play music but not the way we were trained through music schools or sessions with a very strict teacher. They all just play music. They say it’s in their blood but at the same time they’re all just playing and dancing and doing it from (childhood).”

It is that free-spirited inflection that Goetze really captures in Griot . Accented with Goetze and Cissoko’s own beautiful ballads and often highlighted by swirling hallucinatory animation (which is borrowed from the pair’s live shows) finding the tone and pace of Griot proved to be the most difficult challenge for Goetze’s transition from trumpet player to filmmaker.

“As a director you have a vision of the film and you have an idea but the edit kind of [shapes] it” Goetze says crediting producer Victor Kanefsky and Sam Pollard for their help during the lengthy six-month post-production phase. “I just had to stop my thinking as a director and let the editor do his work pulling it apart and then put it back together in a way which was much better than before. It was just one of those abstract films which takes much longer to edit.”

As satisfied as Goetze is with the film’s colorful esthetics and casual pace he appears even more content having revealed Cissoko’s music and distinct culture to the rest of the world.

“I would like [audiences] to get a viewpoint of how important the oral culture is and the heritage because it is so meaningful [in Senegal]” says Goetze. “It’s also very meaningful for us in the [western] world to protect that tradition.”

But perhaps it’s the quiet Cissoko — finally speaking up in French — that most succinctly suggests the importance of looking at the traditional oral culture of griots.

“Sometimes [younger people] don’t realize the chance they have” translates Goetze for Cissoko. “It’s now up to the younger generation to discover what their role will be.”