The Avu of Alafrika: a narrative on an encounter with musical arts knowledge

  • E Aseka
  • A Herbst
  • M Motsekgha
  • M Nixon


Meki Nzewi, supplemented with interlocking commentary and interpretation by Eric Aseka, Anri Herbst, Mathola Motsekgha and Michael Nixon The Western world is just beginning to accept the concept of the griot and griottesses in West Africa as oral historians. Alex Haley\'s Roots stimulated this awakening with his saga of an American family which depicted their history through family tales, archival research and finally a visit to a griot: … today it is rightly said that when a griot dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground. The griots symbolise how all human ancestry goes back to some place, and some time, where there was no writing. Then, the memories and the mouths of ancient elders was the only way that early histories of mankind got passed along … for all of us today to know who we are. (Haley 1976:10) According to Hale, the term ‘griot\' can be translated as ‘wordsmith\', ‘artisan of the word\', historian, storyteller, praise-singer, genealogist, adviser (often through music), spokesperson, diplomat, mediator, composer, musician, teacher, naming ceremonies and funerals (Hale 1998:18–58). Mutwa Credo (1964:xvi) pointed out that ‘the Black man of Africa\' did not have ‘scrolls\' or ‘pyramids\' to write down his/her history, but they told stories and still do. In Indaba, my children Credo gave a historical account of the continent that is very similar to Nzewi\'s. While Meki Nzewi does not see himself as a griot, he indicated to me that the following Igbo words could serve as a Nigerian counterpart for ‘griot\': Mmanwu abani – ‘The night spirit\' who creates sung stories and philosophical reflections on happenings in the society; Ogbazulu obodo – ‘The spirit that runs through a community\' who sees and sings about happenings; Onye akuko na egwu – ‘The story singer\', a human person. It seems as if the first two terms could be applied to this story which is told in a dramatic singing mode. The narrative starts with a historical reflection, followed by a ‘palaver\' which ends with a song of reconciliation. The past, the genealogy of a continent, is recounted in order to interpret and transform the future. The writing style reflects the cyclical improvisatory style of West African music; what seems to be repetitive is not, but is an elaboration of the ‘standard pattern\', adding new information. It is important to note that the style is therefore cyclical, spiralling away from the starting point, and not circular, which would mean relentless repetition without any change. The way that the story evolves is an artistic presentation of the healing capacities captured in drumming: the reader is drawn into the singer\'s state of mind, reflecting on the past. Through variation on the pattern the initial agitated state of mind is changed into one of reconciliation, looking towards the future. [Commentary and interpretation by Anri Herbst]

Journal of Musical Arts in Africa Vol. 1 2004: pp. 55-84

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 2070-626X
print ISSN: 1812-1004