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African actor brings the storyteller’s culture to world

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There is an African phrase that translates roughly as: "If you don't know where you're going, at least you know where you came from."

Sotigui Kouyate's profession is based on this philosophy. Kouyate is a Griot.The Griot's only tools are words - unwritten words.

He speaks. And when he does he pacifies, provokes and tells stories. He serves as a library, a mediator, a counselor of kings and traditional African chiefs. He is in charge of all the ceremonies in life from births to marriages to baptisms to funerals.

The Griot is also a musician, singer and dancer - a mortal embodiment of Dionysus, if you will. He is the point of equilibrium in the West African society.

In that region, more specifically Burkina Faso, where Kouyate was raised, the society uses a caste system. There are families that are known only as tanners, clothmakers (weavers), farmers and metalsmiths.

"My family is known as the Griots," said Kouyate, who makes his home in France.

It's an important profession that has been handed down in his family from generation to generation. Farther back than Kouyate can remember. He did note, however, that the Griots existed before the Mandingo empire during the 13th century.

"There is nothing more serious than the issue of identity of oneself," Kouyate told the Deseret News through interpreter Helen E. Richardson, assistant professor of theater at the University of Utah.

"The first and obvious question we ask someone who seeks our counseling is, `What is your name?' From there we can draw a line to where that person came from and what types of jobs his family has done."

The word Griot is a French word derived from the African word "Jeli" or "Djeli," which literally means "blood."

"Back before the kingdom of Mandingo, there was an Arab man named Sorakata Benzafare, who was an ally to the prophet Mohammad," Kouyate said. "He was actually one of the first Griots, and sang songs about the prophet. He loved and respected the prophet so much that he drank some of Mohammad's blood to keep them together."

The Griot's role is very understandable, but to the French who colonized West Africa, the storyteller's place in society was confusing.

"The French understood the idea of blacksmiths, weavers and farmers," Kouyate said. "But they saw the Griot receiving money for talking and didn't quite understand how important that occupation was. So, consequently, the French viewed the Griot as societal parasites.

"That's a big part of the challenge of helping people understand the function of a Griot. The deeper issue, of course, is cultural. The idea of a Griot goes against all Western influences. Of course in Western tradition, a record of one's family is important, but how the Griot recorded a village's history or a people's history is drastically different. There are no writ-ten records. It was all done by memory.

"The French tried to assimilate the West African culture to a European way of thinking," Kouyate said. "And sometimes the Griot were overlooked."

Kouyate is a Griot by lineage and function, but also an important actor with the Peter Brook Company. By using his talents, the man brings the Griot culture to schools and universities all over the world.

He has lived in France, Switzerland, the United States and India. And while no one can become a Griot who wasn't born into a family of Griots, Kouyate is teaching his techniques to dance and theatre students to help them get in touch with themselves, to be better performers.

"There is no more important thing in the world than understanding yourself," he said. "Everything we are today is a result of life leading us on a journey of discovery. And along the way, we reconnect with ourselves."



Show set April 3, 4

Griot Sotigui Kouyate is currently in Salt Lake City giving workshops at the University of Utah. He and the students will perform "The Voice of the Griot" Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4, at the Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance on the U. campus.

Curtain is 7:30 p.m. There will also be a matinee Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the Pioneer Memorial Theatre box office, 300 S. 1400 East, for $12 general admission and $8 for students, senior citizens and U. faculty and staff. They will also be available at the door one hour prior to the performances.