Resonance: Musical Heritage of La Francophonie Previous   Next



Ethnic group: Bamanan
Made by Jeli Oumar, known as Maa Ncinii Konè, a griot
Sound box made by Jeli Oumar's father, Cuanta Koumaré, a blacksmith
Canadian Museum of Civilization

  Jeli-koni - CMC no. 2000.139.10a-b / Photo: Harry Foster


J eli-koni literally means "griot's lute". In many African societies, the majority of the population consists of farmers, and the rest is made up of artisan blacksmiths, woodworkers, shoemakers and musicians. The members of the musicians' caste — artisans who have certain privileges and are forbidden to do certain things — are called griots. They are the artisans of language — the guardians of tradition — and their knowledge includes genealogy, tales, epics and songs

To become a griot, one must know how to manipulate language. Mastery of language and memory training are among the subjects taught at the "school of the spoken word", whereby griots transmit their knowledge to a member of their family or their caste. A griot must possess two qualities: imagination and heart. To clearly express what it is possible to achieve with these qualities, three factors must come into play: spirit, intelligence and memory.

Touareg musicians / Photo: Carmelle Bégin

In the past, the koni was played at the royal court to entertain the king of Ségou, the former capital of Mali, by evoking his power, victories and qualities as a warrior. Today, this four-stringed lute is used only on happy occasions, such as baptisms, weddings and circumcisions. The music of the koni awakens one's sensibility by increasing happiness, which may reach the level of ecstasy. It incites people to surpass themselves, to the point of putting their lives in danger. The koni accompanies stories that focus on the life of heroes. These stories now constitute the bulk of the instrument's repertoire and are told by musicians during nocturnal gatherings.