The origins of Jelis are best understood from traditional stories recounted by Mande peoples. Jelis recount their histories as both s profession and specifically in a Mande traditional sense. The first distinction traces the art of Jeliya back to the time of Mohammed-specifically to his companion, Surukata. This distinction legitimizes jelis in an Islamic, religious sense.

An article by David C. Conrad studies the Sunjata and Surukata epics closely, noting the importance of connections to Islam for early Mande peoples (including jelis) for prestige and honor. The author explores  in depth the historical connections of jelis with Islam, and is an invaluable read on the subject.

While a religious connection is seen as important, a main concern of Jelis is their connection to local Mande traditions. To establish this local tradition, a Jeli will most likely claim (and have) a lineage to the Kouyate or Diabate clans. Both of these trace their ancestry from the Sunjata epic. The details of this epic are very elaborate, and will vary depending on which area or Jeli recounts it. Having both historical and oral traditions, this part epic/part factual story plays a huge role in establishing the legitimacy of jelis in a particularly African and not Islamic sense.

In short, the story highlights Bala Faseke Kouyate, the son of the first (known) Mande jeli, Jakuma Doka. Kouyate served as the jeli to Sunjata, and thus decedents of Kouyate claim theirs as the only true lineage. (As Charry notes, this gives the Kouyate jelis the upper hand over all other jelis).

The Diabate lineage is often traced back to the Traore lineage. This lineage and history has brothers killing a Buffalo and being rewarded with a woman (Sogolon Konde) to whom they bring to Sunjata’s father. She eventually then gives birth to Sunjata. Thus the Diabate jelis claim this lineage.

There has been much study on this ancient story. Some references include:

Jan Jansen’s “Ultimate Version” of the Sunjata Epic

A brief overview of Western African nations, epics, and the Sunjata epic

A link to the epic (partial) in an easy to read form

There are many great print resources as well on the epic and the origins of Jelis.

 “Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande People-Conrad

“In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic As History, Literature and Performance” –Austen

Review of “In Search of Sunjata” (JSTOR)  

OTHER SOURCE: Eric Charry, Mande Music, Chapter 3. (ISBN 0-226-10162-2)

Author: Terence Malangone

Leave a Comment