Afro-American Folksongs - online book

A Study In Racial And National Music, With Sample Sheet Music & Lyrics.

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musicians in Europe a few centuries ago. That these black minstrels are not "beggars with one consent" is due to the fact that their powers of improvization are so great and their willingness to employ them to mercenary ends so well known that that they are feared as well as hated, and conciliated in the manner universal by those who can afford to do it. These men, who are called Lashash by the Soudanese, Nzangah (a term also applied to prosti­tutes) by the Niam-Niam, griots, or guiriots, in Sene-gambia and Guinea, and guehues in West Africa, are syco­phants attached to the bodies of kings and chiefs, for whom they exercise bardic functions. They are extremely sharp of tongue and have no hesitation in putting their skill to the basest of uses. Hence it comes that persons near enough to the sources of power and preferment approach them in the same manner in which supplicants for royal favor have approached the mistresses of kings and poten­tates in civilized countries time out of mind. Moreover, as their shafts are as much dreaded as their encomiums are desired, they collect as much tribute for what they withhold as for what they utter, and many of them grow rich. Thomas Ashley, in a book of travels published in 1745,1 says that they are "reckoned rich, and their wives have more crystal blue stones and beads about them than the king's wives." But, like the mediaeval European actors, jugglers and musicians, they are not recognized as repu­table; they are even denied the rite of burial, and in some places their dead bodies are left to rot in hollow trees.
The weapon which these griots use against those whom they wish to injure is satire, and this species of poetical composition is a feature of the improvizations of the blacks in the Antilles to-day and long has been. Bryan Edwards says in his history of the English colonies in the West Indies:
Their songs are commonly impromptu, and there are among them indivi­duals who resemble the improvisator', or extempore bards of Italy; but I cannot say much for their poetry. Their tunes m general are characteristic of their national manners; those of the Eboes being soft and languishing; of the Koromantyus, heroick and martial. At the same time there is observable in most of them a predominant melancholy, which, to a man of feeling, is some­times very affecting.
1 Cited by Engel.
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