Vol 12. Africa: The Mali Epic of Son-Jara: Introduction Summaries

This section includes:   Notes    |    Text

Notes:

  1. The founding of the Mali empire is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose life and exploits are the subject of the Son-Jara, the national epic of the Manding people.
  2. The rise of ancient Mali in the thirteenth century is closely associated with the spread of Islam into the region, which had begun in the seventh century.
  3. The principal custodians of the oral tradition are professional bards, known among the Manding as dyeli or belein-tigui.
  4. The epic of Son-Jara developed by accretion, which together with its oral transmission may account for its three distinct generic layers.
  5. The ideological function of the epic is the construction of a Manding common identity under a founding hero.

Text:

* blue words within the text indicate important notes to remember

  1. The oral form of the Son-Jara is a record of the events that lead to the formation of the Mali empire and a repository of societal values. The founding of the Mali empire is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose life and exploits are the subject of the Son-Jara, the national epic of the Manding people. With the exception of events re-created in the epic and one in Arab historical records, actual details of Son-Jara's life are unknown. He has been transformed into a figure of myth and legend in the oral tradition.
  2. The rise of ancient Mali in the thirteenth century is closely associated with the spread of Islam into the region, which had begun in the seventh century. With Islam came literacy, which enabled an elite educated class to emerge and serve early rulers of the three best-known medieval empires in western Africa—Songhay, Ghana, and Mali. In the oral tradition, Son-Jara is a descendent of Bilal, a companion of Muhammad, whose family migrated from Asia. The invocation of the epic assimilates Son-Jara with Adam of the Koran as well as the Jewish and Christian Bibles, and makes reference to Bilal.
  3. The oral tradition in western Africa remains an integral part of life and comprises various expressive forms such as folktale, legend, myth, and poetry, which distinguish it from ordinary speech. The principal custodians of the oral tradition are professional bards, known among the Manding as dyeli or belein-tigui. For Westerners, they are more widely known under the French term griot, a legacy of colonialism. The region was conquered and divided in the nineteenth century by colonialists from France and Britain. Not only did these bards recite from memory, but they also endowed their recitations with imaginative use of language and free improvisation.
  4. Most likely beginning as a series of praise poems addressed to Son-Jara, the epic was expanded to include extended narratives of his life and achievements. The epic of Son-Jara developed by accretion, which together with its oral transmission may account for its three distinct generic layers. The first layer is the narrative framework of structural episodes and genealogies. The other two layers are praise poems and songs. The task of the griot is to bring the narrative to life, to reenact it dramatically.
  5. The Son-Jara is political, with its focus on the rivalry of two brothers for succession to their father's throne. The defection of Fa-Koli from the side of his uncle Sumamuru to that of rival Son-Jara is decisive for the outcome and sets a moral tone of "good" over "evil." The ideological function of the epic is the construction of a Manding common identity under a founding hero. Other African narratives include Kabili, Da Monzon of Segou, the Mwindo epic, and the Ozidi saga.
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