Griots, or their female counterparts, griottes, are bards from West Africa, particularly in Mande and Senegalese society. They are also known as jelis.
Like the ancient Celtic bards, the griots were a combination of entertainers, praisesingers, and historians. And like their Celtic counterparts, the griots were once high enough in rank to be councilors to kings and tutors to princes. They were also the knowledge keepers, those who would remember all of the dates important to a clan or village, such as births, wars, and deaths. A griot might serve as a judge, mediating arguments and advising families, and even arranging the terms of marriage. The griots also were trusted messengers to the ruling class.
In the modern world, few families can afford to have their own griots, so one griot may travel from place to place. They no longer have their formerly high status, although some traces linger. In Senegal, for example, the griots are the only public performers, and in Senegalese tradition only griots may speak directly to rulers. The griots are otherwise said to be below the lowest status, which may be the reason they have such freedom.
Griots play a variety of musical instruments, depending on each griot’s personal taste and training. The oldest instrument griots play is the balafon, a wooden xylophone, but griots may also play the kora, which is a harp or lute with twenty-one strings, the ngoni, a true lute, the xalam, which is played like a guitar, or the jembe, tama, and sabar, which are three types of drums.