Griot Tradition

A griot is a West African storyteller, singer, musician, and oral historian. They train to excel as orators, lyricists and musicians. The griot keeps records of all the births, deaths, marriages through the generations of the village or family. Master of the oral traditions, the griot plays a key role in west African society.

Griots originated in the 13th century in the Mande empire of Mali. For centuries they have told and retold the history of the empire, keeping their stories and traditions alive. They tell their stories to music, using instruments such as the ngoni, the kora or the balafon. In my family it was the kora.

A kora is a 21 string lute which sounds like a melodic harp. A griot trains for years learning to play the kora and listening to elder griots telling their stories.

Like the instruments I play, my heritage offers a distinctive twist on traditional expectations. The Keita name links me directly to the Mandinka kings of the 13th century and as a descendent of these kings, I would not normally have been allowed or expected to play the kora, a skill reserved and handed down primarily within West Africa’s griot families. I would be someone that musicians play for, not as a musician myself! But fortunately I was raised by my mother’s family, the Cissokhos, who are one of the leading griot families, and so I was trained in music from an early age.

The training itself is extremely rigorous. It takes years and years of listening and memorising. In my family we are taught to build koras by the age of seven or eight, and only after years of study acquire the skills necessary to perform the repertoire of hundreds of songs and stories that make up the griot’s heritage. This is when you get your own instrument. I got mine at about 18 years old! I can easily tell when I hear a player if they’ve had traditional training because there are the deeper patterns and melodies, not just the simple sound in their playing. Although my interest is in pushing the boundaries of my traditional framework, I do have the full, traditional background and repertoire of compositions, some of which date back to the 13th and 15th centuries. It is my responsibility as a member of my family to pass on what I was taught so that our stories may never be lost or forgotten.

The Cissokho family are known among Griots as both talented singers and musicians. In 2003, under the name ‘Jalikunda’ a group of my family members and I toured together and created the album ‘Lindiane’ which demonstrates the depth of knowledge and range of skills – from percussion and kora to storytelling and song – within one family.

The most beautiful thing about our music is that you don’t need to understand the words in order to understand the language of a song. Some songs are sung from the belly and some from the heart or head. Meaning comes with the feeling that the voice and the music create together.

P.S. Pictures of my late grandfather Jali Kemo Cissokho (RIP) and my grandmother who we all call “Ando”

My Griot Family Tree

Seckou's Griot Family Tree


The Kora

The kora is a West African stringed instrument, related to but very different from the harp and lute. Most koras have 21 strings, but the Southern Senegalese version that I use can have as many as 25 strings. My own instruments have 22 strings.

There are four basic traditional tunings which are linked to the different regions in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mali where the kora is played. Each region has its own distinct tuning and usually a kora player only works with his own regional tunings. But that is slowly changing now. I learnt all 4 tunings quite early on and I felt at home with them.

The first time I experimented was by accident when recording my debut album on the song Tamala. I was looking after my daughter and made a mistake in the tuning of the song…  And it just felt right so I adjusted and developed it til it sounded right. I continued developing new tunings. My approach has been to put all 4 tunings together in the same instrument, so while still rooted in tradition, the sound is quite different to what people are used to hearing, and the range of material I can perform is greatly extended.

With the new tunings, I’m able to take songs from all the main traditions and play them all on the same instrument. I can also more easily tune up or down, and modify the sound while playing. This is necessary when playing in a more improvised way, responding to other musicians around you, as we do in the band. I use the traditional kora to create new material, so it’s important that I stay rooted in the traditions, but can put my own interpretation into them.

The kora is traditionally tuned by tightening rings of leather and animal skin rather than with the pegs commonly used for guitars, but I use two very different instruments in performance, a traditional ‘ring’ version that  tends to drift out of tune a lot. Constantly adjusting the tuning becomes part of the performance. But it has an amazing sound. I also use a modified, updated version that is tuned with pegs. Nowadays, many kora players use pegs as it just makes the performance easier and allows you to concentrate on the songs rather than the tuning!

In 2003 I asked my cousin Aliou Gassama who makes the most extraordinary koras, to create a double neck one for me to see if I could push things even further… And he did! He created the first ever most beautiful double kora which I use in my concerts whenever possible (i.e.when it is possible to travel with such a large instrument!).  I have created a few songs on this one including Chelima. Aliou has been asked to make a few other double koras since mine!

If you are interested to have a kora made for you, I would strongly recommend my cousin. You can contact him here.

The Djembe

The djembe is a Mande drum, one of the most common instruments found across West Africa. It’s widely believed that the djembe has its origins with a class of Mandinka/Susu blacksmiths known as Numu. Its thought that the spread of the djembe in West Africa may be due to Numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D. Despite these associations, there do not appear to be any hereditary restrictions on who can play the djembe, as does occur with some other African instruments.

The djembe first made an impact outside West Africa in 1940s Paris. Through the 50s and 60s,  interest in African drumming grew across Europe, as the idea of a ‘national ballet’ developed. Traditional African dance and drumming was being adapted to the western stage with huge success. ‘Les Ballets Africains’ featuring a young Papa Ladji Camara and led by Fodeba Keita of Guinea was part of this movement. The djembe soon became very popular in drum circles all around the world.

In its proper context, the djembe is played in an ensemble along with the “dunun” drum (dununba, sangban, kenkeni), and bells. Individuals play different parts that lace together intricately to weave a delicate rhythmic tapestry. Djembe and dunun drummers often accompany dancers; a lead djembe player, or soloist, plays rhythms which align with the dancer’s movements as they make them, and their playing will signal changes in the dance steps, as well as the beginning and end of a piece.

Traditionally crafted djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out hardwood trees. Specific types of wood depend upon the forests accessible to the drum makers. Some West African hardwoods used for musician quality instruments (carved in Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Ivory Coast) include dimba (bush mango), lenge, bois rouge, acajou, iroko, hare or khadi, and dugura.

Master drummers such as Mamady Keita and Famodou Konate have substancially contributed to make djembe rhythms known and popular around the world.


A Dunun (also known as dundun, doundoun, or djun-djun) is the generic name for a family of West African bass drums that developed alongside the djembe in the Mande drum ensemble.

The dun dun is a double headed, cylindrical drum typically with a wooden shell (although metal and fibreglass shells exist) and cowhide heads (although, some have goat-skin heads). The heads are held on with rope and often steel rings.

There are two primary playing styles for dunduns. The traditional style has each player using a single drum resting on its side, either on the floor or on a stand, and striking the head with one stick and a bell mounted on top with the other. A melody is created across the interplay of the three dununs. For the other style, known as ballet style as it is used in the National Ballets, one player has command of the three dununs standing on the floor. Playing like this allows a more complex arrangement for the dance.

Methods of playing the dunun vary across West Africa. In Mali it is sometimes played with just one dunun and a bell held in the hand. In some regions of Guinea it’s played with no bells at all or two dununs are played. In Hamanah they play three dununs and bells. The influence of Mamady Keïta, Famoudou Konaté, Mohamed Diaby, Bolokada Conde, and others from Guinea have contributed to the spreading of the three dunun style of playing.

Note: I borrowed some text from Wilkipedia here


The Tama or talking drum is a West African drum whose pitch can be regulated to the extent that it is said the drum “talks”. The player puts the drum under one arm and beats the instrument with a stick. A talking drum player raises or lowers the pitch by squeezing or releasing the drum’s strings with the upper arm. This can produce highly informative sounds to convey complicated messages. The ability to change the drum’s pitch is analogous to the language tonality of some African languages

Talking drums are one the oldest instruments used by West African griots and their history can be traced back to the ancient empire in Ghana. The Hausa people (and by influence, the Yoruba people of southern Nigeria and Benin and the Dagomba of northern Ghana) have developed a highly sophisticated genre of griot music centering on the talking drum.

In the 20th century the talking drum became a part of popular music in West Africa. It is used in playing the Mbalax music of Senegal and in Fuji and Jùjú music of Nigeria (where it known as a dundun, not to be confused with the dundun bass drum of the Mandé peoples.) Among the Wolof people of Senegal, the talking drum (known as a tama) is an hour-glass shaped drum with two heads of goat, lizard, iguana or fish skin, tuned by tightening the strings that connect one end of the drum to the other.

Note: I borrowed some text from Wilkipedia here


The calabash is a vine grown for its fruit, which can either be harvested young and used as a vegetable or harvested mature, dried, and used as a bottle, utensil, or pipe. For this reason, one of the calabash sub-species is known as the bottle gourd. The fresh fruit has a light green smooth skin and a white flesh and was one of the first cultivated plants in the world, grown not for food but as a container.

Hollowed out and dried calabashes are a typical utensil in households across West Africa. They are used to clean rice, carry water and also just as a food container. Smaller sizes are used as bowls to drink palm-wine. Calabashes are used by some musicians in making the kora (a harp-lute), xalam (a lute), and the goje (a traditional fiddle). They also serve as resonators on the balafon (West African marimba). The calabash is also used in making the Shegureh (Women’s Rattle) and Balangi (a Sierra Leonean type of balafon) musical instruments. Sometimes, large calabashes are simply hollowed, dried and used as percussion instruments, especially by Fulani, Songhai, Gur-speaking and Hausa peoples.

I started using Calabash drum in my music in 2004. Surahata Susso has developed a unique style of playing and complement this incredible deep drum sound with hi-hat, cympbals, bongo.

Note: I borrowed some text from Wilkipedia here


The sabar is a traditional drum from Senegal. It is generally played with one hand and a stick. Among its most renowned exponents is the Senegalese musician Doudou N’Diaye Rose. It has also been made popular with Mbalax rhythms from pop music in Senegal, notably with musician like Youssou N’Dour or Omar Pene. The Sabar is usually played with the Tchol, which has a deep base sound and the Tama.

The Sabar was originally used as a way to transmit messages from one village to another. The different rhythms correspond to phrases and could be heard for over 15 kilometers.


The Seourouba is a set of 3 drums and is very specific to certain part of the Mande Culture. It is a very popular drum in Casamance where I am from. Similar to Sabar, it is played using your hand and a stick and also using a wistle.