ISSN: 1570-016X

Volume 3, Issue 2 (23 September 2003)

Book review


Marloes Janson. The best hand is the hand that always gives: Griottes and their profession in Eastern Gambia (CNWS Publications, Vol 118, African Studies Series). Leiden: CNWS. 2002. xiv, 322 pp., 6 figures, 8 tables, 12 photographs, appendices, indices. Paperback, € 35.-- ISBN 90- 5789-080-1, ISSN 1569-3783

Reviewed by

Barbara G. Hoffman

Cleveland State University


Department of Anthropology
Cleveland State University
Cleveland, OH 44115

© Barbara G. Hoffman



In the Mandinka village of Maneh Kunda near the town of Basse Santa Su in Eastern Gambia, Marloes Janson spent a year as an apprentice griot studying one form of jaliyaa, the verbal art of the griot, in depth. There, she found an innovative application of a professional activity common to griots throughout the Mande diaspora: daaniroo, a form of praise that has other names and is practiced mostly during life-cycle ceremonies in other areas of the Mande diaspora, including neighboring regions of Eastern Gambia. The daily market in Basse town has become the most common venue for the practice of daaniroo by the griots of Maneh Kunda. The rewards they earn for their praise there serve as the griot women's principal source of income, and as a supplemental income for the griot men who also practice daaniroo there on a routine basis. The elucidation of the circumstances, purposes, and techniques of practicing market praise, especially the discussion of the differences between griot women's market daaniroo and that of griot men, is Janson's major contribution to the growing literature on griots.

Before summarizing the major points of the essay, I must make two observations. The first is that this appears to be a doctoral dissertation, and not a peer-reviewed, professionally edited monograph. For this reason, I was somewhat surprised to be asked to do this review, although I was pleased to read and comment on the research report of a promising young scholar, and I hope that my critique will help the author in revising it for publication by a press that will give it the editing attention it needs. As it stands now, the reader is subjected to numerous needless redundancies which can be quite annoying, as well as a naïve style of writing appropriate for a doctoral degree (grandiose claims, exaggerations, overgeneralizations, etc.), but not for a broader scholarly audience. In my opinion, further refinement of both the style and analysis should be done in order to bring this work into publishable form.

My second observation is that it suffers from a false linguistic dichotomy that is central to the entire work: although written in English, it distinguishes between griot women and men by borrowing terminology from French which artificially implies that the word "griot" is the proper label for only griot men, and that griot women should be called "griottes" instead. However, I know that Janson is now aware of the fallacy which will be laid out below, having discussed it with her at a conference in Leiden in 2002 where I gave a talk on the subject. I understand that, by that time, the manuscript had already been sent to the printer. Nonetheless, the reader of this treatise will not realize, without some elaboration, just what the issues with the terminology are.

The term "griot" has been borrowed into English from French, and has attained a remarkably wide adoption in the English lexicon; however, it is typically pronounced differently from the word in French. The phonotactic rules of English demand that words - even those that are cognates in English and French - whose written form ends in an alveolar stop have that consonant pronounced:

tort [tor] tort [tort]
part [par] part [part]
pot [po] pot [pat]

So, "griot" is commonly pronounced by English speakers (however erroneously) as [griot] with a hard "t". "Griotte", on the other hand, has not been adopted into the general lexicon of English, and for good linguistic reasons:

  1. Phonotactics: no non-borrowed English sexed noun pair uses the strategy of doubling the consonant and adding -e to form the feminine.
  2. Morphosyntactics: there are productive suffixes available in English to transform a masculine noun into a feminine one, the most common being -ess:
    1. Actor - actress
    2. Master - mistress
    3. Host - hostess
    So the most "natural" monolexemic feminization of the word "griot" (if one were needed) might be "griotess".
  3. Semantics: the most significant problem with using the word "griotte" in English is that adopting a separate, sex-specific term sets up mutually-exclusive semantic domains:
    If griotte = female jali
    then griot = male jali

This is, in fact, the distinction Janson adopts throughout this work. It is an incorrect and false dichotomy (however she is not the only scholar who has committed this error - her strategy closely follows that of Francophile scholar Thomas Hale and his book Griots and griottes). As she herself acknowledges, the distinction does not reflect the Mandinka structures where jali (griot) is used for both men and women and the sexed suffixes -keo (man) or -musoo (woman) are added to distinguish the gender of the individual.

The appropriate English terms are thus the following:

Griot = jali of either sex
Griot man = male jali
Griot woman = female jali

Despite these noteworthy but understandable errors, I find this study an extremely interesting and important contribution to the literature on griots in West Africa. It is rich with data on the lives, personalities, and professional strategies of a class of griot women heretofore undescribed: the ordinary, everyday jalimuso. As the first Western scholar to have undergone apprenticeship as a griot woman (in Mali in the 1980s), I particularly appreciate Janson's detailed descriptions of the realities of these women's lives, how they struggle to balance the economic demands of their family situations with the sometimes conflicting requirements of their religion and their profession.

The first of her objectives is to reveal the social context of the practice of daaniroo, a goal she successfully reaches in the course of six chapters devoted to the topic. The first chapter describes the physical and social makeup of the griot compound, Kuyateh Kunda, where she lived and was apprenticed. The second chapter, devoted to the life histories of five of the griot women of Kuyateh Kunda, has many points of interest, but needs significant further editing and development; as it stands, it reads much like field notes, a rather loosely woven compilation of anecdotes awash with names and relationships difficult to keep track of. As the author of a book, Griots at war: Conflict, conciliation, and caste in Mande, where the reader encounters similar issues of complexity in the personages that populate it, I sympathize with the difficulties Janson faces in trying to convey both the information and the necessary indices that keep the reader oriented. The genealogical charts from Appendix B could be reworked to include the names and inserted into this chapter to make it much clearer. Photos of each of the five featured women would also go a long way to making this chapter more coherent.

The next three chapters elucidate some of the differences in the professional practices of griot women and men. Chapter three focuses on the market place variety of daaniroo while chapter four contrasts that to the daaniroo practiced at a naming ceremony. These two chapters make it clear that jaliyaa has become a near-moribund profession for men in that area while it remains a fruitful source of income for women. As economic pressures on women increase, so does their resourcefulness; thus, the innovation of adding the marketplace to the ceremonial arena as a venue for praising their patrons. Chapter five compares the relationships between griot clients and their patrons and makes the important point that gift exchange is the basic principle of the patronage relationship, a discussion inherently interesting enough without the doubtful frame Janson gives it of disputing a hegemonic discourse in Mande Studies that privileges the status of men as patrons of griots. Both Durán and I have discussed the close relationships of women griots and their women patrons (Durán 1995, Hoffman 1995, 2000). It is true that there is more published about the fabulous patronage of wealthy Mande men than of women; it is also true that there are more fabulously wealthy men in Mande areas of West Africa than there are women of similar status.

The second of Janson's objectives was to study the relation of daaniroo to the institution of patronage. Here she sets up a false straw man to argue against, and it would be advisable to edit this argument out of the next version. It is not the case that in Mande studies the concept of patron is homogeneously male, as I've stated above. However, Janson's description of the intricacies of patron-client relations in Manneh Kunda is one of the most meticulous to date. It is clear from her discussion that multiple interpretations of the significance of the griots' art exist simultaneously, sometimes competing, otherwise simply coexisting: while griots may see their words as a precious gift, at times their patrons agree and at others they argue the words are empty of significance. The data in this chapter strongly support the kind of view of the Mande caste system that the authors in Bird & Kendall 1980, Johnson 1986, McNaughton 1988, Hale 1998, Conrad & Frank 1995 and Hoffman 2000 have promulgated: a "system" that allows for flexibility of application, permeable boundaries, and fluid meanings.

Another of her stated goals for this study is to make griot women "visible", to "break the silence" about them in the Mande Studies literature. This is one of the exaggerations of dissertation discourse that will need to be revised in subsequent publications. This work is not the first to discuss griot women nor is there a silence to be broken, although there is certainly plenty more work to be done. Scholars such as Lucy Durán, Thomas Hale, Fiona McLaughlin, Cornelia Panzacchi, and to a lesser degree, myself, have already begun the inclusion of griot women in our publications. Janson's study is, nonetheless, the first full-length report that focuses largely on griot women. It does not discuss them exclusively, however. Even the chapter devoted to the life histories of five griot women situates their stories in the context of family life where men must be talked about as well. Although the subtitle of the dissertation is "Griottes and their Profession in Eastern Gambia," in each instance the profession of griot women is compared to that of griot men. A more appropriate subtitle might be "Griot Women and Men and their Profession in Eastern Gambia."


Bird, Charles S. and Martha B. Kendall. (1980). The Mande hero. In: Ivan Karp and Charles Bird (eds.), Explorations in African systems of thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 13-26.
Conrad, David C., and Barbara E. Frank. (1995). Introduction. Nyamakalaya: Contradiction and ambiguity in Mande society. In: David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (eds.), Status and identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1-23.
Durán, Lucy. (1995). Jelimusow: The superwomen of Malian music. In: Graham Furniss and Liz Gunner (eds), Power, marginality and African oral literature. Cambridge University Press. 197-207.
Hale, Thomas. (1998). Griots and griottes : Masters of words and music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Hoffman, Barbara. (1995). Power, structure, and Mande Jeliw. In: David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (eds.), Status and identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 36-45.
Hoffman, Barbara G. (2000). Griots at war: Conflict, conciliation, and caste in Mande. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Johnson, John William. (1986). The epic of Son-Jara: a West African tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
McNaughton, Patrick R. (1988). The Mande blacksmiths: Knowledge, power, and art in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

About the reviewer:

Dr. Barbara G. Hoffman is Associate Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at Cleveland State University. She is the author of Griots at War: Conflict, Conciliation, and Caste in Mande and the guest editor of Mande Studies 4, Gender in the Mande World.

© Barbara G. Hoffman

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Document history: 24 September 2003 (in-text reference 'Durán 1999' corrected to 'Durán 1995')