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  • Son-Jara: The Mande Epic
  • Jan Jansen
Son-Jara: The Mande Epic Text by Jeli Fa-Digi Sosòkò, Analytical Study and Translation by John William JohnsonBloomington: Indiana UP, 2003. xx + 331 pp. ISBN 0-253-34337-2 cloth.

This edition, the most complete so far, is preceded by two editions, the first of which appeared in 1986. The second, "classroom" edition (1992), compared to the 1986 edition, omitted the extensive analysis on the social setting of the Sunjata epic. The new—third—edition has the 1986 as its base. There are two changes that are both additions: the author updated the bibliography and added the original text. The updating of the bibliography demonstrates the extent to which the Sunjata epic has become a "classic" theme in many disciplines. I will not elaborate on this, because this edition does not include an analysis of those publications—the 1986 text has been maintained. Since this text has proven its merits, in academic as well as in classroom use, I will restrict myself to a review of the "Mandekan" text.

This edition is, as far as I know, the first time Indiana University Press has published a bilingual text, thus meeting—in my opinion—a basic prerequisite for a scholarly, sound edition of an oral text. Yet, it is a pity the publisher did not adapt its font, and thus we read a text full of ò, è, and ny instead of the appropriate signs.

Linguists may disapprove of Johnson's choice to present his text as "Mandekan," "the language of Mande." It has been argued convincingly that a group of Mande languages do exist, but that "the language of Mande" is nonexistent. Yet, I feel very positive about Johnson's choice, since it takes into account that Fa-Digi's language is a mixture of Maninka-kan (Malinké), Bamana-kan (Bambara), and jelikan ("griot language," full of archaic and standardized expressions). In the past, Maninka-kan was spoken by the people of the zone where Fa-Digi lived. The linguistically closely related Bamana-kan, however, was the lingua franca as well as the radio language of the late colonial period and the first decades of independence. And jelikan Fa-Digi learned from his family and his travels among other griot families. Fa-digi clearly jumps between the languages; the transcription features both the Bamana "ye . . . ye" construction and the Maninka "ye . . . di" construction. From what I read aloud, I have concluded that Johnson and his assistants remain close to what they actually heard. Fa-Digi seems to have produced often an u where according to present-day (more or less standardized) transcription rules in both Bamana-kan and Maninka-kan, another vowel would prevail (for instance: bulu/bolo for "arm"; fula/fila for "two"). Often, as is the case for anyone transcribing a text from the Mande cultures, a choice may have been difficult to make: any alphabet simply is too limited to reproduce the [End Page 120] riches of sound. For those who may not be convinced by Johnson's meticulous transcription, there is good news: a complete recitation of the epic by Jeli Fa-Digi Sisòkò accompanies the book (but is sold separately).

The bilingual book and CD together will certainly open new roads to an appreciation of (performances of) oral epics. Johnson must be lauded, again after his 1997 (co-edited) anthology on African epics, for his dedication to providing scholars, teachers, and students with the tools to experience, more than ever before, the literary, aesthetic, and cultural riches of the Sunjata epic.

Jan Jansen
Leiden University


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