Go to epic
(approximately seven pages)
This little paper is composed of quotes from and notes about
Epic Traditions in Africa,a 1999 survey essay
by Stephen Belcher (Comp. Lit. Dept.; Penn State U.).
I have also looked through Oral Epics from Africa,
a 1997 compilation of excerpts of transcriptions
of performances of epic (edited by Stephen Belcher,
Thomas A. Hale, and John William Johnson).
Stephen Belcher conceives of Epic Traditions in Africa
as a "contribution to the classification and analysis
of this body of literature" (x).
"Neither the orality nor the performative aspect
of these narratives is the primary focus of this study" (xv).
Nonetheless, he does discuss performative aspects,
as shall be seen presently.
Incidentally, according to the author,
Isidore Okpewho (Comp. Lit. Dept.; Binghamton, SUNY)
remains the most prominent expert
in performance aspects of African storytelling.
(Especially cited are Okpewho's The Epic in Africa:
Towards a Poetics of the Oral Performance,1979;
and The Oral Performance in Africa,1990.)
In particular, "Isidore Okpewho has made himself
the patron and gatekeeper of the Ozidi saga
through a series of essays illuminating the mode of performance,
the transcription, and the general poetic content" (x).
(The Ozidi Saga,published in 1977,
performed by Okabou Ojobolo of Nigeria,
recorded and translated by John Pepper Clark).
Stephen Belcher defines epic as
"extended narrative on a historical subject, delivered in public,
most often with musical accompaniment, by a specialized performer" (xiv).
He writes that epics are presented
as "public" and "consensus" versions of history (7).
Belcher, then, is interested in the kinds of historical records
that can be gleaned from oral traditions:
he seeks the "historical substrate" of epic (10).
He is also interested in how epic traditions
form around historical figures.
Belcher notes that knowledge
of the recent past is relatively full:
doings of the present generation
and the one preceding it are often commonly known.
Backwards beyond the fifth generation
only rarely is there any information.
The ancient past is also often common knowledge:
"Traditions that recount the origin of the culture
(and often, the world) are also relatively well-known;
these are the base. The story of creation
typically remains stable down through the time
when direct contact with the divine comes to an end" (4).
It is information pertaining to the middle ground--
the link between the mythic past and
the recent, specific, and detailed local clan history--
that proves most difficult to gather.
Belcher would find in epics references to:
migrations and village settlements,
property rights questions (especially land rights),
political power questions (especially rights of succession),
and political and military history (founding of states and dynasties).
He notes that "migrations often emerge out of
a growing recognition of the inadequacy of the local food supply
and the need for the dispossessed portion of the community
to split off and establish a new community elsewhere.
Such migrations often occur...out of desperation,
out of the need to avoid starvation or to escape danger.
Migrations involve a division of the community;
their leaders are great men and women
but also destroyers of an established order" (50).
He is interested in the historical roots
of stories about heroes and heroines
who "establish their own communities in the wild
to escape a tyrannical elder" (51).
Belcher is attentive to how and when epics are told,
and how these factors affect the information-content:
"When the Gambian jali (singer) Bamba Suso
performs the epic of Sunjata for a school audience,
or when Kanku Mady Jabate of Kela
recites an 'official' version of the epic of Sunjata
for a delegation sent down from Bamako
to collect for nation-building purposes,
or when Wa Kamissoko speaks in answer to questions
from an audience of professional historians,
the value of the information may well be independent
of its value as a representative performance-event" (xxi).
According to Belcher, "The radio has largely replaced
the nobles as a source of patronage;
performers no longer aim
to become pampered dependents of the local chief
but to become jet-setting rock stars.
But epics have found a niche:
they circulate widely in audio cassette form
as a sort of cottage industry.
It may be premature to explore
the generic boundaries of the thirty-minute cassette epic
as opposed to the ninety-minute version,
but that time may come" (xxii).
No longer able to make a living
by becoming part of a nobleman's retinue,
"griots have responded by finding new sources of revenue
in the broadcast media and recording studios,
as well as with foreign researchers and universities" (xxii).
The genre that Belcher most often presents
in distinction from epic is praise-singing (panegyric).
Two differences between epic and praise
are that epic is public, while praise is more private;
and epic is narrative, while praise is more allusive.
To varying degrees, praise songs are incorporated into,
and grow out of, performance of epic (16).
Epics, and episodes within epics, often end
with praise-songs about or addressed to the hero.
Praise singing involves decoration and elaboration,
and expression of emotion (like another sometime
element and potential disrupter of epic, lament).
Although praise singing is in a sense a private affair,
it becomes public to the degree that
the subjects are heads of state
and the performances are held publicly.
"Praise songs are one of the keys to the relations
between griots and nobles.
Where blacksmiths make real objects
used for life-giving and life-taking activities
such as agriculture and warfare,
the power exercised by griots is that of the Word.
They remember and recall the praises, the genealogy,
and the history of the clan of their noble patrons.
A gifted griot will not be limited to one family,
but will know many.
The Malian writer Massa Makan Diabate
recalls an occasion in the early 60s
(the funeral of President Modibo Keita's father)
when his uncle, the celebrated jeli Kele Monson Diabate,
held members of the government spellbound for seven nights,
reciting the genealogies of all the great families of Mali.
Griots are thus the repositories of family fame.
They control social identities. This power, as well as
the bond that entitles them to ask for (or extort) gifts,
makes them doubly disquieting...
The culturally conditioned response
to praise singing is gift giving." (12).
"Modern technology and marketing forces
are complicating the situation.
Modern music competes with traditional forms;
modern tastes may prefer more lively dance music" (xxii).
In fact, "Nowadays, the patrons want dance music
rather than extended verbal pieces" (126).
"The most successful griots in Mali nowadays
are not singers of epic, but the women who sing praises.
Praise singing is in many ways a preferred genre:
it elicits gifts more directly, and the music is livelier.
Epic recitations run the risk of monotony
and are often broken up with praise singing intervals
either by the master singer
or sometimes by a woman (often his wife)" (16).
The lyric accompaniment or interlude
may be more easily transformed into a pop-dance song
than may a narrative section of an epic,
and these interludes are often sung by women.
There seems to be a universal taboo
against women as epic-singers--
women are allowed to sing (to support and embellish),
but are not allowed to speak (to narrate events, to set the agenda).
It seems to me that this might be so
because the female can be a real or perceived threat
to the (artificial) constructs of the group,
its ideology, heirachies, boundaries,
and the various other foundations of its public life.
I have heard of women in Turkey who are struggling
to be allowed to perform epic in public.
In my future research in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere,
I will especially be on the lookout
for women who perform, or wish to perform, epic.]
Whether the genre is epic, genealogy, or praise,
Belcher identifies a spectrum of types of performance,
"between the austere and solitary performance
of a Fula maabo such as Boubacar Tinguidji,
sitting motionless as his words flow
to the accompaniment of his hoddu
for the private entertainment of his patron,
and the more exuberant and collective events
described in Central Africa, where the lead singer,
accompanied by a retinue of musicians and a chorus,
dances through the public space
as he narrates, sings, and mimes the action" (188).
Belcher notes that "All Mande [West African] epic
involves, besides the principle performer,
the naamu-sayer who serves as respondent to the narrator
and whose exclamations provide
a rhythmic regularity to the narration.
Historical epics may also introduce
female soloists for lyric passages and praise songs" (188)
"Epic performance in the Manden is multigeneric.
It combines narrative, lyrics, and instrumental solos.
While the established [European] model for epic singing
privileges the notion of a single male performer,
the African data provide ample evidence
of performance by teams that include women
in featured roles who supply the lyric element." (91)
Belcher claims that multi-sensory, multi-generic,
audience-participation epic performance style
is most highly-concentrated in Central Africa
(***Ozidi epic***, Ijo-speakers of Nigeria;
***Jeki epic***, Duala-speakers of Cameroon;
***Mvet epic***, Fang-speakers of Cameroon;
***Lianja epic***, Mongo- and Nkundo-speakers of the Congo;
***Mwindo epic*** of BaNyanga-speakers of the Congo).
In Belcher's Central African epic style,
there is a "mix of prose and passages of song,
rather than continuous linear poetry.
The narrative line is subordinate to
dramatic and musical action in performance,
and the performer's behavior
is far-removed from the impassivity
widely-associated with epic performance
in other traditions" (27).
This is "a more collective and popular art form.
Performance here involves not only words and music
but also kinesthetic elements such as dance and mime;
the participants include
not only the artists but the onlookers" (27).
In the Lianja transcriptions, the song-and-dance aspect
of the performance is clearly manifest through
the extended and repetitive lyric interludes (song sequences),
which convey a sense of the performance
as a collective and participatory experience" (39).
In Central African performance of epic,
"the 'call' to perform sometimes has shamanic overtones,
and training in some instances appears to be a form of initiation
with aspects of cultic practice...
that are meant to link the performer
with the spirit of the hero who will be evoked" (28).
"In performance, the principal narrator
may be equipped with a rattle, a bell, or some other object
that serves as a prop or symbol (e.g., a spear or staff);
he is accompanied by an instrumentalist
or by a group of apprentices.
He does not usually play an instrument himself...
The singer is not fixed in place but is free to move about.
The story is conveyed not only verbally and musically,
but also kinetically through dance and mime...
The performer's animation is matched by that of the audience,
which may and often does participate
in the dances and songs that are so much
parts of the occasion.
In the Central African tradition, the performer
can be viewed as the catalyst
uniting the entire community of participants
and the constructed world of the performance.
The distance between performer and subject collapses;
the performer becomes the hero (or his antagonists),
and the audience is given an integral role in the event.
It hardly seems coincidental that so much of the Lianja cycle,
for instance, involves a procession of the hero and his followers
that recounts his conquests and the additions to his train;
just as the performer becomes the hero in the performance,
so the audience, following the performer,
becomes what they actually are: the hero's people" (29).
"In Lianja, [the] hero and his sister
progress with a triumphant and swelling train.
In Ozidi, the hero acquires a retinue
of singers, drummers, and flute-players
(these are of course also the mark of a chief)" (51).
"At one extreme, then,
the principle dynamic of this performance tradition
would seem to involve
the collective experience of a reenacted past
rather than the narrator's
verbal and narrative reconstruction of it
in the telling of a story
as, for example, in the Shalian tradition,
in which...the static center of the event is the performer,
who serves as a prism or lens through which
to experience a diagetic reconstruction of the past" (30).
The subject of the Central African performance
is not the 'full' story. Rather, in each performance
selected episodes are presented,
drawn from a tradition that can seem endless--
a bottomless reservoir, an ocean of story
from which the performer draws as needed
to suit the occasion and his inspiration...
Episodes may be freely transported,
and performers will improvise
and adapt their material to their audience.
There is a high degree of consistency from version to version
in the most common episodes
of the performers' documented versions.
Elsewhere, Ozidi confronts a series of opponents,
much like the Duala hero, Jeki;
each opponent is treated in a separate episode,
the characteristic tone of which
is defined by the nature of the antagonist" (30).
Each character is associated with
his/her own physical movements, and melody and rhythm.
"Tunes 'belong' to heroes.
The story of an acquisition of a tune
is a staple theme in the narrative repertoire,
and a hero may be wordlessly evoked through his music.
In principle, a gifted performer
with a musically informed audience
could almost do without the words,
letting the interplay of proprietary melodies
tell the story" (145).
Traditionally, the Ozidi saga takes place in the open,
where the audience participates
in the songs, dances, and commentary.
Performance occurs over a period of seven nights,
which is the prescribed duration of the event.
Ozidi, Jeki, and Lianja are all triumphant
and perhaps over-proud battlers
who are called on a quest
and are then free to seek out or await
other antagonists (187).
There is a string of adventures and tests.
The basic story of the Lianja, Ozidi, and Mwindo traditions is:
A child is born following the death of his father.
He performs prodigious feats of magic and strength,
and with the assistance of a female relative,
establishes his people (41).
A few words about 1) the female relative and 2) the magic element:
In many African epics, a female relative of the hero
(in the Lianja case, his sister; in the Ozidi case, his mother)
supports the hero: "Lianja does not function alone;
he is always accompanied, guided, strengthened,
and motivated by his sister; and it is the two of them together
who create their people by recruiting them
for the marvelous march and
leading the way to the promised land" (37).
"Isolating the (male) hero
disregards an essential dynamic of the stories.
While the male hero may possess tremendous powers,
he does not always control them
and he certainly does not work alone.
He acts in a world defined by his predecessors
and is to some extent controlled by them.
He follows rules established by another;
his power derives from another.
He furthers a social dynamic that begins with his parents" (49).
"In this tradition, heroes are defined by
their control of magical powers;
the lover Nsoure Afane, for instance,
flies about on a metal ball.
Other heroes fly or tunnel through the earth.
Weapons and implements are stored
inside the body, in the belly, and called upon at need,
often through the use of a little bell...
Battles are exaggerated contests of power
and (for the performer) imagination,
in which the changes in ground rules defy all expectations.
The magic, rather than suggesting
a lost and mythical world of divine beings,
magnifies the scale of the story;
its function is much like that of special effects" (54).
"The importance of the magical element in the conflict
can hardly be overstated; this runs counter to
the battle orientation of much European epic.
As Charles Bird and Martha Kendall note,
the real conflict takes place on the level of occult power;
once that is settled, the battle is something
of a foregone conclusion...
The magic involved is not merely a cheap form of sorcery.
Rather, it expresses a world
obeying hidden and not always positive forces,
and the hero's creative
relation with, and control of, those forces.
It is thus attached to the notion of a deeper order in life.
Further, for the culture
the fighting is not really that important,
nor what makes the story central.
Rather, the series of tests passed and choices made
by the hero in the course of the story
define what the proper outcome should be." (104).
"It is a given that the battle takes place
outside the material plane,
that it is the heroes' spiritual (albeit not religious) protection
and powers that allow him to overcome his foe" (119).
"The heart of the Lianja story
(insofar as there is a defined story line that is told continuously)
is the progression of Lianja and his sister Nsongo
on their way through the forest,
conquering all they meet and thus acquiring more followers,
some with useful skills such as
weaving, fishing, and brewing" (35).
"The adventures conclude (if they ever do)
when Lianja, Nsongo, and the others
come to a river and cross it.
Their followers settle there,
while Lianja, Nsongo eventually leave them
and rise to heaven" (36).
The cycle thus "generally ends when
Lianja and his sister cross a river,
which may reflect the collective experience of the Mongo groups
that say they originally came from across the river.
Still, the presentation of the material
is anything but specific and historical" (32).
One version of the Mongo's story begins,
"A first ancestor travels across the water
to steal the sun and to win a bride" (33):
how to subject that claim to historical analysis?
In such stories, then, instead of history,
the reader grapples with complex details
of lifestyle and social organization (187).
"Historical value is not a consideration
in approaching these texts,
although they may retain information
in cliche form or reflect the past traditions
of the groups involved.
Rather, the most useful approach
is probably to regard many of these narratives
as mythical in effect:
an exploration of the dimensions of the human condition
and the principles of the societies in which people live" (31).
Central African epics, like hunter's epics,
explores natural processes of increase
(food and reproduction),
as well as questions of social roles
(husbands who flee their wives;
women who act as men;
parents who attempt to kill their children).
"These stories tell of how people learned to gather food,
of the invention of traps,
and of the establishment of social relations and gender roles.
They tell of the establishment of the relations
between the different levels of the world
by drawing on the common device of the travels of the hero.
They suggest the establishment
of natural cycles of death and birth" (48).
It is the "mythical progression through
the cycle of life and death and life again
that affirms the continuity of the social unit" (50).
The unrestrained ambition and egocentrism of the hero
suggests that he may be seen as an unreliable trickster figure
who evades normal restrictions of social codes" (50).
"He travels through the world
essentially doing everything backwards
until he is either killed or made a ruler" (50).
Belcher acknowledges that
the performance style he identifies as Central African
also occurs elsewhere, and that
not all performance in Central Africa follows this model.
He also points out that in Central Africa, as elsewhere,
performers modulate according to the situation:
for example, a night performance at a hunting camp
is generally more sedate, verbal, and introspective
than a daytime performance in the middle of a village.
Also, in Central Africa, as elsewhere,
there is a distinction between
the epic-singer who performs for the aristocracy
at court and at other private places,
and the one who performs for the people
in the streets and countryside (144).
ERIC'S (final) NOTES--
Last year I wrote a paper for Kwesi Yankah
on verbal audience-participation in a performance of the Ozidi Saga
(as transcribed in John Pepper Clark's 1977 book).
The paper was titled, "Roleplaying in an African Storytelling Event."
I forget if I gave you a copy...anyway, in a few days
I hope to place it on my website--will tell you when I do.
Now I am trying to get hold of the film John Pepper Clark
shot of a performance of the Ozidi saga--
the film is of a performance other than
the one transcribed in his 1977 book.
I understand the lead performer in the film
is not extremely-gifted verbally,
but does a good job physically and otherwise
in regard to incorporating the audience members.
Numerous aspects of the performance style
attributed to Central Africans
also occur in epic-chanting traditions
of Tamil Nadu, south India, including
1) the presence of the responder,
2) the female praise-devotional singer,
3) the singer's use of a sacred object
as a prop and musical instrument,
4) shamanic overtones, with the performer being
identified with the spirit of the hero being evoked, and
5) stories about people escaping tyranny
to found new communities in the wilderness.
I have not yet seen much use of full-body dance
in Tamil folk storytelling processes,
although I suspect it is there
(it is certainly there in most all of India's classical dance styles).
Nor have I seen much audience-participation
in Tamil folk performance beyond people joining
in the chorus sections of songs,
although I suspect that traditions
of physical participation are there also.
As verbal, musical, and physical interactivity
is one of my favorite aspects of epic performance,
I will be looking out for these phenomena
in Tamil performance of epic,
as well as for the aforementioned
female lead performers.
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