Biography of Anonymous - Sundiata

The author listed on the cover of Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali is D.T. Niane. Djibril Tamsir Niane was born in 1932, educated in Africa and France, and worked for several universites as a professor. He is by all means most famous for having translated the epic of Sundiata into a written form in 1960. He translated the epic to French, and so did the Western world have a chance to learn it.

But D.T. Niane is not the most important author of this work. Instead, he merely transcribed and translated the words of Mamadou Kouyaté, a griot from Mali. A griot is an oral storyteller, similar to Greek bards, responsible for preserving and presenting the old stories. They would perform their stories accompanied by an instrument called a balafon, as a long-form song. Professor Niane merely recounts the story told him by the griot, even including the sections (especially in "Soumaoro Kante, the Sorcerer King") where the griot attacks written history as harmful in the way it works against both the "warmth of the human voice" and preserving memory.

While little is known about Mamadou Kouyaté himself, he does share his lineage in the epic: he is descended from a line of griots, and trained through both extensive travel and education to tell the stories of old Mali. A griot typically performs for an audience through song, and is entrusted with the celebration of culture as well as preserving and presenting history. Mamadou Kouyaté stresses in the work that he knows all the great "secrets" of Mali, ones that the typical person has no license to learn and ought not attempt to learn. Griots are central figures in the Mandingo tradition, since their job is not only celebratory but also has the practical value of reminding leaders of what has worked in the past and hence should be repeated, and by extension what behaviors should not be repeated.

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