Djeli & Beirdd: Exploring links between the musical traditions of West Africa and Wales
The aim of this Ty Cerdd funded project was to explore and gain insight into the connections between the ancient musical traditions of the West African griots/djeli and the Welsh beirdd/bards. To achieve this we commissioned a unique and beautiful collaboration between Troupe Djeliguinet (a Guinean group from the hereditary djeli tradition, visiting Wales in August/September 2022) and Welsh musical duo Bragod.
The West African griot/djeli are storytellers, singers, musicians, and oral historians. The djeli play a key role in society and were traditionally messengers and diplomats of the court, disseminating information through music and song dating back to the 13th century Mande empire. They have told and retold the history of the empire, keeping their stories and traditions alive using instruments such as the ngoni, the kora, and the balafon. Djeli train for years learning to play their instrument and listening to elders telling their stories. Traditionally only men would play these instruments, but Fatoumata Kouyaté, leader of Troupe Djeliguinet, is one woman challenging the male dominated music scene in West Africa having been taught these traditional instruments by her father (a master djeli balafonist) and passing these skills to her daughters. The Kouyaté family are famously descended from the first balafon playing djeli, Balla Fassèké Kouyaté, who was legendarily assigned guardianship of the instrument by the King of Soso, Soumaoro Kanté (see the story here).
Similarly, the Welsh bardic tradition goes back a long way, dating back to the sixth century. Bards/beirdd were an important part of medieval Welsh society where they often composed praise poems in the courts of kings and noblemen. Becoming a bard meant learning complex metrical systems and having a deep understanding of historical and legendary lore. Some evidence shows that bard pupils were taught orally, by the end of the 16th century the medieval system of bardic training had died out. Bards were traditionally men just like djeli, but Mary-Anne Roberts, a Trinidadian singer based in Cardiff, is reviving the art as one half of Bragod (a musical collaboration between herself and Welsh medieval instrumentalist Robert Evans).
This project brought together members of Troupe Djeliguinet and Bragod for a series of meetings to discuss, explore, and experiment with co-creation, drawing on parallels they find in their work.
The project meetings (with translation and cultural mediation facilitated by our Artistic Director, N’famady Kouyate) involved learning about each other’s traditions and instruments, playing for each other, and finding commonalities. This evolved into merging songs to develop two collaborative pieces that could be performed – Mali Sa-jo and Yr Wylan. During the sessions the quartet (made up of Robert Evans, Mary-Anne Roberts, Fatoumata Kouyaté, and Ousmane Kouyaté) did the following:
- Shared praise singing traditions – Bragod with crwth and voice, the Kouyaté’s with balafon, bolon, calabash and voice.
- Fatoumata and Ousmane started with a demonstration of popular traditional West African folk song Mali Sa-jo that is sung in Mali and Guinea (a story of a hippopotamus that falls in love with a hunter), and it didn’t take long for Bob and Mary-Anne to join in.
- This led to Mary-Anne introducing lyrics from South America (meaning ‘we’re begging to let men’s spirits fly’) to make a perfect mash-up, Ousmane developed this further by adding a further song and taking it to some accessible English lyrics celebrating Africa. This was later augmented with an introductory praise song for the djeli in its next iteration.
- Bragod introduced their Welsh bardic song Yr Wylan (the seagull), which inspired Ousmane to spontaneously start singing about sougay (the sun).
- The sun theme was taken up by Fatoumata, with lyrics about the sun and the stars (unknowingly taking up the theme of the eternal – see below). She explained later that all the celestial bodies are women – it is women who get up first and are the last the retire (and that do all the work).
- Mary-Anne and Robert talked about ancient structures or ‘measures’ used in medieval Welsh music made up of a binary system of 0s and 1s, Bob observed that Fatoumata’s playing already followed this pentatonic pattern naturally. Robert explained that the 1s represented all that was eternal, unchanging , timeless, and ethereal; the 0s represented all that is material, changeable, influenced by time, and mortal. For Fatoumata this question was reflected in the natural nature of the instruments, and that the voice was a reflection of this, we are here for the moment.
- Mary-Anne went on to say that the bardic measures are patterns that are recognisable in African praise music.
- The group discussed ancient traditional instruments. Ousmane explained in Guinea there were a lot of traditional instruments but that their use is in decline, many have been adapted and modernised, but you don’t get the same true sound, and that it was important not to forget and to have respect for the traditional methods.
- The four explored improvisations mixing songs in SuSu, French, Welsh, and Triniadain Patois.
- Bragod identified ‘measure’ patterns within the West African traditional songs played.
- Traditional tunings were discussed, Ousmane confirmed that the original balafons were tuned very differently. Ancestral tunings have being sacrificed to play with western instruments. Ancient traditions have been lost in Wales, similarly ancient African traditions were lost to those forcibly sent to the Caribbean and then re-created and re-imagined, but in Africa they are still living and known.
- The griot/djeli is an oral tradition, Ousmane’s father could recite the full history of Guinea from the start to the finish. Only fragments are written of the Welsh medieval tradition, the majority is lost. Research and documentation of Guinean tradition is starting because of a lack of interest in the younger generation – no one wants to carry a balafon, guitars are more attractive.
- Bob commented that from what he’s heard, traditional West African music is not based on tonic, dominant, and sub dominant harmonies etc – there is a different compositional base, which is interesting and good news to him in his research work.
- Fatoumata also shared a very ancient melody reserved for very special occasions. Ousmane then demonstrated how this song has evolved and played the modern version commonly heard in Guinea today.
- The sessions were full of serendipity and synchronicities that arose as each explored new themes of interest.
The sharing of this work was part of Troupe Djeliguinet’s set at Butetown Carnival on 29th August 2022, where Bragod was invited to join them on stage as special guests. Both groups presented, played, and emphasised the value of their instruments, showing appropriate respect to the traditions.
For the artists:
- Facilitated cultural education and exchange for both groups through a process of conversation, experimentation, and co-creation
- The creation of something truly unique
- The opportunity to learn how their ancient musical traditions compare, how they differ, and how these traditions have developed into contemporary song and storytelling – from Africa, to the Caribbean, and now in Wales
- Troupe Djeliguinet have not travelled extensively in Europe before, so they learned a great deal from having time to collaborate with Welsh artists and to learn about the traditional instruments of Wales, such as the crwth
- Bragod are keen to piece together the ancient traditions of the Beirdd; working with representatives of a living tradition of ancestral praise singing supported them in discovering similar structures to their own work
- Bragod had the opportunity to learn from Troupe Djeliguinet about their traditional instruments such as the bolon and the balafon (and their tunings)
- The encounters between Bragod and Troupe Djeliguinet were documented in film and in text which they can use to promote this project to their followers and to feed into any future projects
- The learning and creativity of this project will open future opportunities for both groups, giving them the inspiration and experience to develop future collaborations
- Opportunities for both groups of artists to reach new audiences and gain new listeners
- The conversations we instigated as part of this musical project has provided evidence of the similarities between the djeli and bardic traditions and the importance of keeping them alive in the contemporary world. This work will provide evidence for future planning of similar cross-cultural collaborations, opening up future project opportunities for our organization, and opportunities for more artists to be involved.
- This innovative project will give TSOTM more exposure to different audiences and has the potential through the live performance and sharing of the video to increase our reach – especially to those interested in traditional music and history
- This project provided a unique musical and cultural experience for the audience at Butetown Carnival (approx 1500 people)
- The live video of the performance at Butetown will enable us to reach a wider audience in Wales, West Africa, and beyond.
- Exposure to different cultures’ music for audiences in Wales and West Africa, promoting commonality in diversity, and celebrating rich traditions within Wales and beyond.
Notes on our collaborating artists
Fatoumata Kouyaté (known internationally as the artist Djeliguinet) leads the group Troupe Djeliguinet. Djeliguinet is a renowned Guinean singer-songwriter, and has wowed festivals all over Africa and around the world. ‘Djeliguinet’ means griot-woman in the Susu and Malinké languages of West Africa. Fatoumata Djeliguinet is a woman overflowing with energy and skill in traditional instruments such as the balafon, djembe, kora, krin, and bolon. At a very young age she learned her craft at her father’s (Ousmane Kouyaté, balafon master) side, and grew up immersed in ancient musical tradition forming her own unparalleled musical versatility and artistic ingenuity. In turn she has passed this most precious heritage to her eight children (five daughters and three sons), with whom she shares the stage and her passion for traditional instruments. Djeliguinet’s determination and talent has seen her ascend to be a respected artist in the male dominated music scene of West Africa, breaking barriers and shattering stereotypes, paving the way for her all-woman family super-group Djeliguinet et ses Enfants (Djeliguinet and her children) featuring her sister and four of her daughters.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TDGuinee
A musical collaboration between Mary-Anne Roberts, a Trinidadian singer based in Cardiff and Welsh instrumentalist Robert Evans . They perform and interpret ancient and contemporary Welsh music and poetry, the earliest Welsh poems from the 6th century through medieval bardic praise poetry to ritual and popular Welsh songs of the 18th and 19th century. They use traditional Welsh instruments such as the crwth, a six-stringed bowed lyre which was used in Wales for over 800 years until the 18th century where it became much less popular.
Robert researches and experiments in medieval and bardic music and poetry, making him a world authority on the music of the crwth. He is responsible for the revival of this bowed-lyre as a viable historical instrument, which he plays in Pythagorean tuning. A renowned fiddler, instrument-maker, expert in medieval Welsh string music, his interpretations and compositions, based on medieval Welsh sources, have been performed across Europe and the Americas. Robert has mentored many of today’s generation of traditional musicians and crwth-players. He is regarded as one of our finest critical thinkers on the role of tradition in a contemporary culture.
Mary-Anne, originally from Trinidad is a singer and theatre performer and has a specific interest in the connections between medieval Welsh bardic music and the traditional music of the West African griots/djeli. She has developed a mesmeric, audacious and physical performance practice where medieval, bardic poetry, connects audiences to people and lost experiences in our history and heritage. She is equally at home performing in the recital hall or working as a contemporary artist in major European night clubs and at world music festivals.