It is impossible to study the Epic of Son Jara, the Lion King of the Mali Empire, and not study the remarkable oral tradition of the jalis or griots that tell the story. Griots (also known as jalis in the Malinese language) are the historians of this oral culture. Even today the story of Son Jara is being told throughout the countries of Mali, Gambia, and the West Coast of Africa as it has been told for more than 700 years. Since griots memorize the story from male relative to male relative (usually father to son), individual variations happen even in spelling of the hero’s name. To add to the confusion, certain hereditary titles such as Lion King replace the name Son Jara at parts of the story, with the assumption that the audience can follow the variations on a name.
According to tradition, a black man named Bilali was a companion of Muhammad during the 7th century in Saudi Arabia, and such was the trust that the Prophet placed on Bilali that Bilali became the first muezzin of Islam. The muezzin are the criers at the towers of every Islamic city and village who call the faithful to prayer five times a day, and to be the first muezzin represents a significant standing of black Africans in the lore of Islam.
The Mali Empire’s of Son Jara’s Time
According to the legends of the Mali Empire, Bilali is an ancestor of the Keita clan and he migrated to the area of the Gambia River in West Afrida, establishing the clan origins of the Keita who are even today the aristocrats of the Mali tribe. Son Jara (also known as Sunyata, Sondiata, and other variations on the name) is a member of the Keita clan who is commemorated in the Epic of Son Jara.
It is at the beginning of the story of the Mali Empire that Bilali, a faithful follower of Mohammed when Islam as a religious faith was born, held a role in Islamic society of a “town crier summoning the faithful to prayer”. The tradition of the caller becomes the tradition of the griot or storyteller in the Mali settlements along the Gambia River of West Africa. This tradition becomes associated with the telling of Son Jara’s story which is as follows:
There was a king of the Mali Empire named Nare Famakan, born of the Keita clan in 1300 or so, who became the father of Son Jara. Nare Famakan, like all his clan, was Islamic and his ancestry could be traced by the royal griots back to the story of Adam in Genesis. There are variations on the theme of how Nare Famakan married Son Jara’s mother, Sogolon Konde. Sogolon Konde’s name means Sogolon of the warts, and according to many griots’ telling, she was an ugly woman and not the favorite of the king. Sogolon’s son is Son Jara, a malformed, crippled baby with a large head and weak legs who could not walk and never stood a chance to inherit the powerful role of his father. The story and legends woven around Son Jara’s quest for his place in the throne form both a part of the world literature and a retelling of the history and culture of one of the great empires, now lost, of West Africa. The theme of the Son Jara story is the theme of the hero that must conquer many personal as well as external obstacles to receive his patrimony and full recognition by a powerful father.
The story of Son Jara also reflects much of the values of the Mali tribe. Women have no standing unless they are wives, mothers or sisters to men of power. Yet Son Jara is helped by his mother, by the nine witches in a sheltering village, and in many versions, by his sister who marries the evil infidel king Sumamunu who takes the Mali throne by evil magic and association with a mountain-dwelling demon. Women are the providers of food, and are given deep, emotional powers over the men of the tribe who are warrior leaders.
A study of the cultures and cities established on the banks of the Gambia River best illustrates the establishment by Bilali of a place of residence for the Keita clan in the 7th century along the river’s shores. The growth of the Mali influence and traditions is recorded in all the villages along its riverbanks, many of whom also house other tribes. The tribal traditions of the people living along the Gambia River are the best definition today of the places of residence of the Mali people, and crosses the modern borders of the nations known today as Guinea, Senegal and Gambia.
Also included is the country known as Mali today. This nation is a landlocked remnant of the Mali people and one of the poorest nations on earth because it lacks access to the ocean. It has borders adjacent to Nigeria, Senegal and other countries and is an example of how difficult it is to establish modern borders of African nations as surveyed by European colonization, when the cultural memories of the ancient empires of North Africa still defines the religions and values of the tribes within those borders. For this reason, to understand the setting of the Epic of Son Jara, it is easier to visualize an empire that already had vast influence over the length of the Gambia River when Son Jara was born.
The Outline of the Son Jara Epic
Sisoko (1992) provides one of the best outlines of the general telling of the story:
Note: These questions are partially based on notes in John William Johnson & Fa Digi Sisoko, The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition, published by Indiana University Press in 1986.
Episode 1 (This episode states the theme of the poem and leads into an account of creation (from Genesis) and the origins of Son-Jara’s people.)
Episode 2 (The selection from Episode 2 introduces Son-Jara’s father, Fata Magan [or Nare Famakan], by tracing his descent from Bilal [or Bilali], a companion of Muhammad who is said to have been an African. )
Episode 3 (We learn the origins of Son-Jara’s mother, Sugulun Konde, who is also called Sugulun-of-the-Warts.)
Episode 4 (Sugulun Konde is married to Fata Magan and gives birth to Son-Jara, who is crippled by a curse. He recovers, and eventually he and his mother, with his full siblings, are exiled.)
Episode 5 (Son-Jara goes into exile and moves from place to place. Dankaran Tuman loses the kingdom to Sumamunu. Sugulun Konde dies.)
Episode 6 (Son-Jara comes out of exile and defeats Sumamunu with help from his generals and his full sister Sugulun Kulunkan.)
Episode 7 (Son-Jara establishes his rule and begins conquering an empire) (117-121).
The textbook chapter of the story shows how the story is told by a griot. In the next few lines from Episode 4, quoted as an example, Son Jara is born at the same time as another brother, and both wives must tell the king of the birth so that their son can be recognized for the succession. Note the words of the griot and the “echo” of replies that are usually provided after each line in the retelling:
One day as dawn was breaking, (Indeed)
The Berete woman give birth to a son. (Indeed)
She cried out, “Ha! Old Women! (Indeed)
“That which causes co-wife conflict
“Is nothing but the co-wife’s child. (True)
“Go forth and tell my husband (Indeed)
“His first wife has borne him a son.” (Indeed)
A common theme in many African folktales is the conflict introduced by polygamous customs, where the wives struggle to ensure that their own sons inherit over the rights of other sons born ahead of time. In the textbook version of Son Jara’s story, the first wife sends a messenger to notify the king, but the messenger is hungry, stops to eat and is outsmarted by Sugulun Konde, who gives birth to a deformed and ugly baby but notifies the king first. The common aspects of the story are that Son Jara is not the first born son and the information of his deformity, which is contemptible in some stories. The little boy could only crawl for many years and in some versions of the story is called a Thief-King rather than the Lion King, since he had to steal to eat and grew very fat. Son Jara’s father apparently favored the crippled boy enough to give him his own griot, famous in the story as Balla Faseke, but this only added to the revulsion and jealousy the other wives felt about the boy. Sugulun Konde gave birth to other children who were Son Jara’s sisters and brothers, none of whom was deformed (Sisoko, 203-217).
It is Son Jara’s deformity that creates one of the most vivid of the parts of the legend – the day that out of sheer willpower and with the help of a strong metal rod, he forced his weak legs to hold his weight and he walked. Before an a crowd of amazed onlookers, Son Jara thus transformed himself. To the Mali people, this was an exertion of power that did credit to the deformed prince. And his griot composed and sung “The Hymn to the Bow,” on the spot. That hymn remains a part of the Son Jara musical epic still sung by griots over eight-hundred years later (Sisoko, 203-217).
Another common theme is that Son Jara is not allowed to inherit the throne when his father dies. The tribe accepts a stronger brother Dankaran in fear of an evil and very strong rival king named Sumamunu, who threatens the Mali throne with war. Danakan sends Son Jara’s sister and Son Jara’s griot Balla Faseke as gifts of appeasement to Sumamunu. Sogolon takes her into exile, going from village to village where she and the boy are sheltered. One of the common tellings of the story is about a village ruled by nine witches who protect the boy and his mother against the persecution by Danakan and Sumamunu. Son Jara grows up traveling many miles from his home and learns the arts of hunting and wisdom from many people (Sisoko, 222-231).
The evil infidel king Sumamunu takes Son Jara’s sister as a wife and forces Balla Faseke to serve him, but neither the wife nor the griot forget their loyalty to Son Jara. When Sumamunu wins the throne of the Mali people through war and murdering of Son Jara’s other family members, Son Jara is called back to kill the fearsome witch doctor and re-establish the Islamic rule of a monarch for the Mali people (Sisoko, 243-247).
Importance of the Son Jara Epic and the Decay of the Mali Empire
The Epic of Son Jara is a hero’s journey that establishes the strong Islamic roots in the character of the Mali people. In every line of the story, no matter how many variations, the importance of the griots is restated and also establishes the importance of having the paternal line of ancestry memorized and established for recognition within the tribe. Today, the griots are wandering minstrels that sing at weddings and special feasts since few Mali families are wealthy enough to keep one completely to the memories of their own ancestry. Yet Mali griots have become world-famous performers and their music is among the most beautiful in Africa. It is because of their art that Son Jara and the values of the kings of the Mali empire are remembered.
Son Jara becomes a wise and powerful ruler, expanding the Malinese empire and establishing a line of powerful kings through his sons and their descendants until the Mali empire fell apart because of European invasions and internal squabbles in the 16th century. At the time of Son Jara’s reign (1350 A.D.) the empire covered much of the length of the Gambia River and looked like this:
What makes the history of the Epic of Son Jara so interesting is the fact that it defines one of the most intelligent, artistic and poetic of the tribes of West Africa. The music and artistry of the griots is full of subtle minor legends that each one incorporates into the telling, which is passed usually from father to son. It is critically important to keep in mind the fact that the legend is Islamic and African, because it is this combination of factors that some historians say doomed the empire to decay.
Even in Son Jara’s time, a key export from the region was slaves. The Islamic citizens of the Mali empire traded in and preyed on neighboring tribes and cultures for slaves that were sold all over the known world. According to Thomas, the slave trade was one of the principal sources of wealth for the Malinese kings. For example, in 1275, before Son Jara’s time but perhaps in his father’s reign, Egypt alone records the sale of 10,000 slaves from the Mali empire. The trade in slaves theoretically could not include members of the Islamic faith, but was mandatory for the Islamic custom of the harem, since without slaves the women of the harem would be forced to work (87-88).
The Malinese empire weakened its hold over its territories by its depredations on the neighboring tribes. The region known as Senegambia exported 60,000 slaves between 1700 and 1800, of which Thomas estimates 34% were taken in war, 30% were kidnapped, 11% sold after condemnation for some tribal crime, 7% were sold to pay family debts, 7% were sold as friends or relations to pay debts, and the balance some combination of both. As the empire fell apart, its traditions only stayed alive through the remarkable memories of the griots, who today still tell the story of the Lion King of Mali in all its variations throughout the nations that include the River Gambia (Wisniewski, 111-133).
The value system of the Mali tribe are patriarchal, where the women do all the work and men are in charge of property and most major decisions involving the tribe or family. It is a important aspect of the culture that the ancestry of each family be remembered and it is the role of the griots that wander from tribe to tribe to create a song or retelling that keeps genealogy and ancestry clear in the minds of what is still today a largely oral culture.
The Griot Tradition
The griots use many instruments, including the drum and an instrument known as the balafon – closely resembling the marimba of Mexico. But most commonly, the music that accompanies the griots’ songs is the kora, a calabash gourd with a rosewood neck and 27 strings that sounds a great deal like a harp but played very quickly with the thumb and forefinger of the artist. Griots today are both men and women, though the men sing the songs of genealogy and history and the women have a traditional role of singing about love and relationships.
Griots are world-famous artists today, and among the most famous are those with the last name of Keita, who trace their ancestry to the original companion of the prophet Muhammad, Bilali. As in all oral cultures, the re-telling of a story centuries old has common factors such as the tracing of the Keita clan to the Book of Genesis. Son Jara’s story begins at about the middle of the griots’ version, and in some cases the song would have already taken several hours to sing. The griots have an unusual way of telling the story which is reflected in the version of the Epic of Son Jara in the textbook. They speak a line and either the audience or the griot himself (or a disciple) echoes each line with a comment, such as “So it is” or “It has always been thus” or “Yes indeed, all this you have said.” The telling of the story then becomes an interaction between the storyteller and the audience that has a hypnotic comfort and almost the pattern of a dialogue or prayer as the Western world would define it (Volmer, 250).
The Mali Tribe Today
Why is the telling of a story so important to a people? Perhaps when one studies the evolution of modern Africa today, it is easier to understand the role of the griots because the pressures of modernization are creating such difficulties for tribes that see themselves much more as a nation than the populations defined by some geographical border.
Today, the Mali tribe is not necessarily centered in the African nation of Mali as bordered by the United Nations. The Mali live in Senegal, Gambia, Mali and other areas that border the river Gambia and in some of the village clans that speak Malinese, the telling of the Epic of Son Jara is very different than the telling of others. The Islamic tradition of the Keita clan, and the deep faith of what was once an Islamic legend, has been deeply influenced by the demonology and traditions of each area of the long trajectory of the Gambia River.
However, the telling of the story, as in many cultural legends of a people with deep traditions and oral histories, establishes the nature of the struggle of the son for his true patrimony. The Mali perception of what is good is defined by Islamic tradition and by the paternalistic, male-oriented customs of the West African tribal lore. To be born without a genealogy is to be born nameless and cut off from any future. Family is everything, and the clan loyalties demand far more obedience than rules such as mandatory literacy and the payment of taxes to a central government.
The Mali tribes still carry on their traditions in metallurgy and textile manufacturing, among the most sophisticated and valued in Africa. But the nation has only a few exports, primarily cotton and peanuts. Literacy is low, and the HIV scourge of infection in Africa is estimated by the World Health Organization to affect almost 4% of the population, with no indication of decreasing. But is a culture poor when their days are hard and their nights are filled with singing and legends and mysterious forces that explain their world.
“Mali is eternal,” says the griot Mamadou Kouyate, concluding his account of the Sundiata epic. “But never try, wretch, to pierce the mystery which Mali hides from you. Do not go and disturb the spirits in their eternal rest. Do not ever go into the dead cities to question the past, for the spirits never forgive. Do not seek to know what is not to be known.”
When the poem is a verbatim translation from Mande, a great deal of meaning is lost in translation. Idioms and metaphors, which bring color and life to the story when it is read aloud in Mande, possess little meaning when translated into English. The poem is culturally bound, thus; it is difficult for an outsider to understand its emic meanings. Another lost aspect of the poem is the music, dance, and ceremony that would traditionally accompany its performance. The singing and dancing would definitely illuminate many parts of the poem (Jessup, 17-20).