What is the proper role of a poet? What can the public recitation or performance of poetry accomplish at its best – and at its worst? These questions have been popping up in posts and comment boxes in recent days, especially at Ivy is Here and The Middlewesterner (where I haven’t been shy with my own 2 cents). Antonio Savoradin and The Cassandra Pages have also had some interesting thoughts on public recitation and whether or not performing is a necessary part of the contemporary Western poet’s bag of tricks.
This post is not intended to answer any of these questions, but to raise further complexities.
“It is difficult for the Western world to understand the vital importance that the [Maninka] bard has in initiating, mediating and terminating acts,” writes Charles Bird in the introduction to The Songs of Seydou Camara, Vol. I: Kambili.* “The bard is the master of the word and words are considered to have a mystical force which can bring supernatural energies to bear. These energies can both augment and diminish a man’s power to act. In this context, the bard’s responsibility for controlling words is extremely great.”
In his introduction to the portion of the Kambili epic excerpted for Oral Epics from Africa (J. W. Johnson, T. Hale and S. Belcher, eds., Indiana U.P., 1997) – an indispensable anthology for students of world literature – Bird includes a lengthy portrait of the epic’s narrator, Seydou Camara, which I’d like to quote from. As a hunter’s bard, Camara is not a member of the griot (jeli) caste; doubtless one could find a more typical example of a West African bard from which one could perhaps draw some conclusions about the Role of the Poet in Traditional Societies or some such. But every society is different, and every great singer or poet is supremely atypical. Nevertheless, paying attention to the vital poetic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa should give us some indication of what kind of power was once available to poets and singers among, say, the ancient Celtic, Pictish and Germanic peoples of northwestern Europe. Charles Bird writes,
“When the recording of Kambili was made in the spring of 1968, Seydou [Camara] was about fifty years old. He had begun playing indigenous instruments of the Wasulu region [of Mali] as a young boy and had shown considerable promise, particularly on the dan, a six-stringed lute. He began his interest in the donsonkoni, the hunter’s lute-harp, through his initiation and extensive interest in the Komo [secret] societies of the Wasulu region. In his early twenties, he was conscripted into the French army and went to serve in Morocco with the Free French Forces during World War II. After the war, he transferred to the Civil Guard in Mali and was stationed in Timbuktu, where he married his first wife, Kariya Wulen. While in Timbuktu, according to Seydou, he was poisoned by his enemies in the local community, the result of which was what we would probably call a nervous breakdown; Seydou was possessed by jinns. As a consequence, he was dismissed from the service and returned to his native village. Under the care of the famous Kankan Sekouba, Seydou gradually regained his health and devoted himself exclusively to playing the hunter’s lute-harp, serving as a singer for the Wasulu hunters and as a bard for the Komo society. By 1953 he had developed his art to such an extent that he drew the attention of the influential deputy, Jime Jakite. Jakite brought him to a major political rally in Sikasso, where Seydou won the hunters’ bard competition, which elevated him to national celebrity.
Speaking is not easy;
Not being able to speak is not easy.
I’m doing something I’ve learned,
I’m not doing something I was born for.
“He recorded a number of songs for the national radio and his voice was frequently heard on Radio Mali’s broadcasts when I was in Mali in the mid-1960s. When I first met him, Seydou earned his living performing for hunters and their associations at their festivals, funerals, weddings, and baptisms, traveling to many of the towns in southern Mali: Segu, Kutiala, Sikaso, Buguni. He got little for his services, usually receiving a worosongo, the price of kola nuts (about 500 to 1,000 francs, between one and two dollars), a traditional gift usually given as a greeting gesture. He performed whenever and wherever he could, often up to twenty times per month.
“The most important part of Seydou’s poetics was rhythm. He created his lines, unfolded his narratives against the rhythm of his donsonkoni, which itself was dependent on the forceful drive of the iron rasp scraper, among whom the best were his wives, Kariya Wulen and Nunmuso. Seydou’s apprentices played the bass lines on their donsonkonis and Seydou played across the top. Seydou laid his language over the top of this as if his voice were the lead instrument in the ensemble, sometimes locked into the rhythm, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes somewhere in between . . .
“Seydou was always enigmatic to me. He was a consummate musician. I have yet to hear another lute-harp player with the mechanical mastery, rhythmic drive, and lyrical lilt that Seydou gave his music. To some, Seydou was like a court jester, a buffoon. He loved to clown, to tell off-color jokes and stories that made his audience roar with laughter. Seydou loved women. He had two wives and would have had many more if he could have afforded it. He liked booze of all kinds and he could frequently be found at the local millet beer hall when he had a few francs in his pocket. He would say, from time to time, that he was a Muslim, but he loved to ridicule the Muslim clergy, whose hypocrisy he saw as ludicrous. I never did see him pray . . .
“To others, Seydou was like a priest. His services for the hunters were often of ritual nature, singing songs that empowered his hunter clients to overcome the obstacles of the bush and the wild game they sought to kill. On a number of occasions when I was sitting in his hut talking or listening to him play, a hunter would come in with dried or smoked parts of an antelope as Seydou’s part of the kill. He sang the songs that calmed the unleashed spirits of these slaughtered beasts . . .
“To some, he was a traditional medicine man. His tiny hut was crammed full of powdered roots, leaves, dried unidentifiable animal parts and bones. He had a steady stream of clients to whom he delivered medicines for such ills as menstrual cramps or examination anxiety. He cast divination stones to guide people on new voyages, marriages, business ventures, and hunts. I was in awe of Seydou’s effortless expertise and the efficacy of his arts. I came to see Seydou as my protector. In a place full of things I didn’t and perhaps couldn’t understand, Seydou was always there with talismans, poultices, incantations, and divinations, assuring me that I would be all right.
“The extended text which follows is from the end of the epic [Kambili].
A hunter’s death is not easy for the harp-player, Allah!
A hunter dies for the harp-player.
A farmer dies for the glutton.
A holy man dies for the troubled.
A king dies for his people.
To each man, his funeral song, Kambili.
And should an old bard die,
Call out the hourglass drummer,
Call out the iron rasp scraper,
Call out the jembe drummer.
Have them sing my funeral song.
To each dead man, his funeral song, call Kambili!
“Seydou Camara died in his village, Kabaya, in 1981.”
*This mimeographed volume was issued by the African Studies Center at Indiana University in 1974; no subsequent volumes ever appeared. This is a rare example of an English translation of a West African hunter’s epic (another is the book Hunters and Crocodiles by Gordon Innes and Bakari Sidibe, published by Unesco in 1990; more material is available in French). Its extensive endnotes also have strong ethnographic interest, again because almost all the good studies of Malian (Maninka, Mandinka, Malinke) peoples are in French.