A Jeli, also known as a griot, is a highly trained professional African performer/musician whose abilities have been passed down through elite Mandenka family ties. Born into their role, Jelis protect their art through endogamy (inter-jeli marriage). This means that there are a few common surnames such as Kouyate, Kamissoko, Cissokho, Dambele, and Soumano that are recognizable jeli names.
With the exclusive right to play the Kora, Koni, and Bala, many Jelis perform on instruments but are not limited to this. Jelis take many different forms including musicians, public speakers, oral historians, praisers, go-betweens, advisers, and chroniclers. In short, Jelis shape the historical and political past and present of Africa.As a Jeli trains and matures into an artist, he or she picks one of three concentrations. These three options are Kuma (speech), donkili (song), and kosiri (instrument playing). Each field is unique and therefore requires a different type of training. A male Jeli is typically competent in two fields, but picks only one of these concentrations to fully specialize in. Female Jelis are typically prolific in singing, and therefore most practice donkili. To master and specialize their trade, a Jeli must first be an apprentice to an older Jeli who teaches and incourages a distinct personal style.
Since the founding of the Mande Empire, Jelis have attached themselves to the leaders of society, playing music and praising them for money. Presently, Jelis are still active performers in Mali, Guinea, Senegal, The Gambia, and other neighboring countries. While some think of the Jeli as a pest only looking for money, among African performers, jelis hold the highest position of respect and authority for their work.
Author: Russell Follansbee