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Study Guide | Dance



Country Facts

Language: French is the formal language
Wolof is the national language spoken by 70% of Senegalese people
Capital: Dakar
Population: 13,000,000
Country Motto: One people, One goal, One faith
Current President: Macky Sall, elected in 2012

Thiossane: History, Tradition and Culture

Senegal is a land of traditions and its people, although made up of many nations, share a strong sense of national identity deeply rooted in thiossane, a word used by the Wolof as well as the Serer (Fulani) that means “history, tradition, and culture.”

Thiossane is the song of the griot—the African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician who is the living book of the culture, history and traditions of a community. The jeli is a storehouse of oral tradition and is often seen as a leader among the people, keeper of a village’s history and traditionally an advisor to royal families.

The griot is known throughout Africa by many names. In the northern Mande areas they are known as jelis. The Wolof call them guewal and the Fula call them gawlo. The jeli (or djeli) is present among other ethnic groups: the Malinke, Bambara, Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, and Mauritanian peoples. No matter what the name or the people, the oral historian continues to be a respected and honored member of society in West Africa.

Because djelis married other djelis and passed the art down to their children, a djeli's lineage was assured. Even in modern times, festivals, rites of passages, political events and other traditional gatherings would not be complete without praise songs told by the djeli. Most specialize in playing the kora, balafon, and sabar drum as accompaniment to their tales.

Today, the griot sings not only praise songs, but also commentaries on social issues. They often seek jobs as politicians, in the media, or as musicians. The tradition of the griot finds itself being melding with modern rap and spoken word traditions, and each has an important place in the evolving history of Senegal. The contemporary rapper is not a griot but it is possible for a griot to become a rapper. In order to be a griot, you have to have griots in your family lineage.

Some Senegalese rappers such as Positive Black Soul (PBS) have become successful internationally, and bring a broader social and political message to their work. Instead of praise and remembrance, these contemporary rappers address popular issues like corruption, unemployment, history, desertification, poaching, ancestry, and positive African values. A rapper can learn his craft on a street corner, keeping current and relevant with the times, unlike the djeli who must learn the old stories at the feet of another djeli.

Will rappers one day become the modern day djeli? The answer is in the stories they tell.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”