Leaving the cold January night outside, Yacouba Sissoko and Baye Kouyaté enter the warmth of Lenox Lounge, a 1920s-style jazz club in the heart of Harlem. Dressed in an oversized black leather jacket that drapes his slight frame, Yacouba enters the room, hugs me and says with a high-pitched sound, “Eh!, I ni faama” (It’s been a long time). Yacouba sits down and takes off his bright blue snow hat with rapper 50 Cent’s name on it. Mentioning that the cold is grave for Africans, he crosses one leg over his knee to reveal a sock that says, “U.S.A.”
When I first met Yacouba, he reached his long, graceful fingers to shake my hand and instinctively tapped them against his heart. A 37-year old kora player, Yacouba still practices this customary Malian greeting despite having been in the U.S. for eight years. He was at a studio practicing for a performance about Sunjata Keita, the legendary leader who established the Mande or Mali Empire during the 13th century. Sunjata created a role for griots as a caste of musical oral historians and praise singers. Griots would prove important in bringing peace, stability and social cohesion to his great medieval West African kingdom.
At the [WHICH STUDIO] studio, Yacouba said, “We struggle to show the power of our traditional music.” When performing Sunjata’s tale, griots are normally surrounded by a crowd familiar with West African culture. When they play at other music venues, though, they often need to adapt their music, mixing traditionally African styles with more modern and Western influences. They often struggle to explain what griots are and touch on the rich meaning behind their colorful tales.
As West African and particularly Malian music have gained significant attention on the world music scene, West African griots have immigrated to the U.S., forming a large community in New York City. They introduce American audiences to their music, and collaborate with West Africa’s biggest names when they tour. In the past year, Yacouba has played with Youssou N’dour and Baaba Maal, as well as American stars like Alicia Keys and the Roots.
In Mali, almost a third of the country’s estimated population of 12 million was a migrant abroad in 2002, according to Sally E. Findley, a professor at Columbia University. The threadbare country’s per capita income was $250 in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of State’s website. Griots arrive in the middle of New York City’s modern frenzy leaving behind the culture that understands their importance and the 800-year-old tradition they bear. Whether their arrival simply offers them the chance to tell their stories to a larger audience and greater success, or whether it marks their departure as a dying breed, stands to tell.
Considered living libraries, griots in the U.S. straddle two disparate worlds. They balance tales of sorcery with the complexities of record contracts and the bureaucratic intricacies of immigration papers. They cautiously protect the authenticity of their ancestors’ ancient oral stories as they recognize the importance of being Googled. In New York, they perform at baptisms and weddings to keep their community together in Harlem and the Bronx, while reaching out to a larger American audience at venues like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Griots have accompanied the growing Mande community in New York, which started with the Senegalese in Harlem and Brooklyn during the 1970s. During the 1990s, Francophone West African immigrants from Guinea, Mali and the Ivory Coast began settling in New York, as immigration to France became increasingly difficult amid tighter immigration restrictions. The Mande heartland, where griot culture is strongest, is located between Mali and Guinea, and the arrival of immigrants from those two countries marked the establishment of a significant griot community. The Mande population in New York City is 20,000 strong, according to Tom van Buren<