An introduction to the art of the Jali


Jali are members of a hereditary group of West African oral historians, musicians and singers

The Jali of West Africa are a hereditary caste of musicians within the Mande people. Jali are also referred to as ‘griots’ particularly by French speakers, but the term ‘jali’ is preferred. You may also this written (and pronounced) as jeli or djeli. Today, the Mande people are mainly found in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal and The Gambia.

The role of the Jali within their society is to take part in important life events such as births, weddings and funerals, but also as the repository of history and genealogy and as praise singers, peacemakers, go-betweens and advisors.

They tell stories and sing songs of the great kings, warriors and heroes of the past, of the Jalis themselves and the wealthy patrons who have supported them. Children growing up in Jali families are expected to learn this history,stories, family trees and music and to learn an instrument.

The kora is part of this tradition, passed down through families for many generations. The origin of the kora (and of Jaliya itself) is the subject of many stories and legends. However, before the kora, the balafon (bala) and the ngoni were also played by Jali and that continues to be the case. Many of the songs traditionally played on the kora date back several centuries and may pre-date the instrument itself.

Today, the best known kora player is the virtuoso Malian Toumani Diabate. However, his ancestors are from The Gambia and one of the interesting features of the Jali is their ability to preserve a history and culture which spans a large area across several modern nation states with a wide range of languages and ethnic groups.

The existence of modernity, smartphones and recorded music has had a major impact on the Jali, with less demand for praise singing and tradition. At the same time, it has allowed their music and history to be known throughout the world. Improvements to the quality of instruments and modern music technology have been eagerly adopted, as has the guitar (now considered a Jali instrument in its own right.) Many interesting musical fusions have been achieved, while tradition styles of playing have continued to be embraced and improved.