Griot: Fran Kaplan, EdD

What is a “Griot”?

“Griot” (pronounced GREE-oh) is the French name given to the oral historians of West Africa. Traditionally griots travel from city to city and village to village as living newspapers, carrying in their heads an incredible store of local history and current events. They pass on their knowledge of history by singing traditional songs, which they must recite accurately, without errors or deviations. Like rappers, they also make up songs as they go to share current events, gossip, political commentary and satire.

Being a griot is often an inherited position, and griots generally marry other griots. There are still many practicing griots in West Africa today. Most often they accompany themselves on the kora, a 21-string harp made from half of a large gourd covered with animal skin. The strings, made of gut or fishing line, are plucked with the fingers. Griots may also play other traditional and modern instruments and are often very accomplished musicians.

Griots at the Museum

At ABHM we call the curators of our exhibits “griots,” because they tell our history. In the former bricks-and-mortar museum, they were the docents who showed groups around the exhibits and helped them discuss and make sense of what they saw and felt. In our virtual museum, griots are scholars who research and write the exhibits and dialogue with visitors through the comments section.

Griots in the virtual museum commit to responding to visitors’ comments and questions in the Comments section at the foot of each new exhibit for three weeks. Be sure to visit new exhibits as they are posted, so you can dialogue with scholar-griots!

Griots in Africa Today

Read about how griots are applying their conflict-resolution skills in Africa right now, and why this traditional peacemaker’s role is threatened, here.

See a Video by a Young Person about the Role of the Griot

Dr. Fran Kaplan, independent scholar, filmmaker, and social activist, is Coordinator of the America’s Black Holocaust Virtual Museum. She co-authored an award-winning screenplay, Fruit of the Tree, based on the life of James Cameron, and is currently working on a scholarly edition of Cameron’s memoir, A Time of Terror.