Exploring the relationship between creativity and identity: The importance of music in Mandinka history

How do we embark on a process of defining our identity in spaces which often give little room for such a thing to occur organically? If no time is given to explore and understand who we are then how can we ever claim to know ourselves? Creativity, an opportunity which offers the chance to explore our talents whilst also exploring other parts of ourselves. As with identity, the beauty of creativity is its fluidity – coming in various forms to highlight the uniqueness in each of us. The central role that music played in the history of the Mandinka people draws attention to their close connection to creativity and identity. By allowing creativity to play a central role in Mandinkan society this fostered a strong sense of understanding self through music.

The Mandinka kingdom (also referred to as Mandingo, Mande, Manlinke) emerged in the 13th century occupying regions covering present day Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau, which gives an indication of the strong influence of the kingdom in West Africa. The importance of music in Mandinkan society was manifested through the presence of the griot (jali), the person that was charged with creating music for the society. Griots were highly respected in Mandinka society; Sundjata Keita, the cultural hero of the Mandinka and founder of the Malian empire, is regarded as the figure that inspired the griot tradition.

From spoken word, to poetry and singing, Mande griots were referred to as Nyamakala (manifesting the source through art) due to the role that their creativity played in invoking the energy and spirit of the creator. Here are some of the ways griots invoked Nyama (the source) through their creativity:

History – In his accounts of his experiences traveling through the Mandinka kingdom, British explorer Mungo Park recounted the role of the griot of “using art to recite the historical events of their country; hence in war, they accompany the soldiers to the field, in order, by reciting the great actions of their ancestors, to awaken in them a spirit of glorious emulation”. By accumulating knowledge of all the events in a village; from birth, warfare, hunting and marriage, the griot acted as a key reference point for history and cultural heritage in Mandikan society. Thus, allowing for Mandinkan’s to connect with their identity through song.

Musical instruments –  The Kora, a harp with 21 strings, was one of the key musical instruments played by the griot. Mastering the ability to play the instrument required a lot of practice and studying with elders to understand the origins of why songs emerged as well as how this was reflected in the composition of music.  The character of the instrument is described as offering various rhythms that one can connect with, the harmonious sounds of the Kora created a strong sense of identity, which was derived from connecting to the past through sound.

When describing the role of the griot, in his book The guardian of the word = Kouma Lafôlô Kouma, Guinean author Camara Laye drew attention to the link between creativity and identity “he lets his heart speak in a natural way[…]he creates, thus a system of discourses which entertain the layman and which instruct the initiated, eager to learn their history”. By creating the space of free expression through music, this offered the chance to explore identity by connecting to art.

The griot tradition has continued over 700 years, the central role that music played in representing Mandinkan society and acting as a source of identity emphasises the important message they relayed, as noted by Gambian musician Sona Jobarteh ‘to always invest in the future and pass on to the next generation’. Giving ourselves the time to cultivate our creativity serves as an important way to connect with our identity. The time we invest in exploring our craft showcases our uniqueness to the rest of the world as well as ourselves.


  • From the Griot of Roots to the Roots of Griot: A New Look at the Origins of a Controversial  African Term for Bard – A Hale

  • The guardian of the word = Kouma Lafôlô Kouma – Camara Laye (1984)

  • The Griots of West Africa – Much more than storytellers – John James

  • Sonah Jobarteh interview for vpro vrije geluiden (1/04/2017)

  • Sonah Jobarteh interview for International Trade Center (21/07/2017)

  • Travels into the interior of Africa – Mungo Park (1858)

*Image taken from Pinterest

(I do not own the rights of the picture in the post)

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