Jeliya - the art of Jeli (griot)

Griot / Jeli

The Maninka term Jeli (in Mandinka they are called Jalis) refers to a type of musical and verbal artist.

Jelis are somewhat like the bards of old Europe. They are story teller, historians and musicians and yet more than this.

Not just anybody can be Jeli. They are highly trained individuals and the skills are handed down through generations of specific families.

Jelis have the exlucsive right to play the kora, the bala (balafon) and the Koni. In certain areas Jelis also play the Jeli dundun and the tama.

It is their role to sing and recount Mande social & politcal life.

They are praise singers and often encourage people to act. It is said that they can mould actions out or music in much the same way a blacksmith can mould useful things out of metal.

There are 3 fields of speciality for Jelis

Each skill has completely different training and the end result is high specialisation whichever is chosen.

Most males are skilled in 2 of these areas.

Females are generally singers.

During their early visits to West Africa, the French coined the term guiriot. This developed into a widely used term griot, to refer to these artists who's role in society is not unique to Mande people.

Certain family names are Jeli, such as Cissokho, Koyate, Conte and Diabate.

The role of the modern Jeli is chaning all the time. They do not have exclusive rights over music performance, but one only has to look at the surnames of leading West Africa artists to see how much they effect they have on it.

Jeli instruments


The kora is a harp, that is made from a large calabash resonator and has 21 strings. It comes from the Mandinka in the Senegambian regions.


The Koni is a plucked lute and is widespread throughout the western African sahel. There are many types among the Mande including the Maninka koni, Mandinka kontingo, Xasonka koni (or kontin), Bamana ngoni, and the Soninke gambare.


The bala is a wooden xylophone and has been played in West Africa for hunderds of years. There are records of the Balafon that go back to at least the 12th century CE.

Sources: Mande Music - Eric Charry - ISBN - 0-226-10162-2

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