The Art of Jeliya

As performers, jelis will specialize in three fields and are usually very skilled in at least two them.  Kuma is the art of speech and is used to relay historical narratives, stories, genealogies, and proverbs. Donkili is the art of song and refers to the singing of lyrics and innovation of tunes.  Foli or kosiri is the art of instrument playing.  Each of these requires much training and experience, making it difficult to be successful at more than one field.  Females are a rare sight in this art form and when seen are most likely singing and, in even rarer cases,  in the field of speech.

All pieces that are played by jelis have a specific story behind them and all have names to represent the story that is being told.  Many of these selections tell heroic tales and legendary battles.  The pieces played by jelis usually relate stories of individuals as opposed to greater families or villages.  Heroes, warriors, or great leaders become the centerpiece of the narrative.  “Mari” is the term for the person that the story is dedicated to.  Although many of these stories belong to specific individuals, they are usually retold to praise members of a similar lineage.  The praise is the most important aspect of the storytelling as it generates pride and honor of the mari’s historic past. Through the use of these three fields, and their combination, it results in a much revered, musical art form known for its entertainment capacity as well as its ability to instill a sense of pride in one’s lineage. 

Dissertation by Joe Luther Williams Jr.

This literature discusses the role of balafon performances and the transfusion of information through storytelling. Through this transmission of ideas, it develops new identities of contemporary groups.  More specifically this dissertation focuses on the role of Mande balafons, played by members of the jeli caste, and how this has affected the overall character of West African cultural heritage.  It also concentrates on the synthesis of traditional and modern formats for Mande balafon performances and how they can contribute toward “contemporary identity formation.” 

Video of West African Griot

This video is a short clip of a West African Griot, or jeli, playing the Kora.  He combines musical harmony with vocal chords in order to amplify his profession as a storyteller.  As griot, or jeli, he uses music, singing, and storytelling to praise other lineages.  He specializes in the kora instrument.  This is a seven-tone scale with 4 different types of tuning.  It is considered a type of harp because it only plays as many notes as there are strings. This instrument is of special importance because the majority of its use is to recall history through storytelling and thus the art of the jeli. 

Jeli Group

This website gives a couple of images displaying various jeli ensembles.  Instruments included in these images are the balafon, the ngoni, and the kora.  As is traditional for these ensembles, it is completely male.  This website also includes two sample songs that characterize this genre. 

African Proverbs

This website presents a list of useful African proverbs.  These proverbs are used throughout forms of jeliya especially in the field of kuma, speech.  One example of such a proverb is, “Every time an old man dies it is as if a library has burnt down.” which originated from the ethnic group Mandinka in West Africa.  It refers to traditional West African form, relating information as a form of oral tradition and storytelling.  Listing these proverbs is an important aspect of the jeliya custom. 

Author: Nick Hayes

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