- The Griot Voice (La Voix Du Griot)
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Sotigui Kouyaté is not yet a household name in American theatre, though familiar to some as a result of his performances in Peter Brook’s productions of The Mahabarata, The Tempest, and The Man Who. In Europe and Africa, however, Sotigui Kouyaté is a renowned actor, dancer, singer, musician, and composer. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the name Kouyaté is linked to the griots, a caste entrusted with the keeping and teaching of native oral tradition. Sotigui Kouyaté and his eldest son, actor and filmmaker Dani Kouyaté, are the heirs to this legacy. Their residencies at Swarthmore College and the University of Utah at Salt Lake City mark the first live performance of their own work in North America. The residencies each consisted of intensive workshops, screenings of Dani Kouyaté’s acclaimed feature film Keita! The Heritage of the Griot, and live performances of The Griot Voice.
For three consecutive days during the Swarthmore residency, Sotigui Kouyaté led a five-hour workshop daily with up to thirty participants. In Salt Lake City, similar workshops were subsequently conducted over a two-week period with theatre and dance students and faculty. Sotigui began by engaging the participants in exercises designed to cultivate teamwork, observation, and telling and retelling. The workshop exercises were designed to awaken a sense of rhythm in the performer as well as to focus concentration in listening. Listening, according to Sotigui, is the most important skill in the training of the griot. The workshops combined the showing of extensive video documentary footage of traditional African performances with the company’s demonstration and teaching. When Sotigui himself demonstrates African dances, nothing about him is idle, and his agile and loosely hung frame in motion belies his age of sixty-one years. The workshop reiterates that music and dance are both vital parts of African culture and the foundations of the griots’ artistry.
La Voix du griot is neither a play nor a performance piece, but a program of African tales and fables interwoven with rousing drumming and dancing. The stage is the epitome of simplicity, decorated with an African mat center front, five folding chairs across the proscenium, and four bamboo screens behind. The house lights are never dimmed. Once the beating of the drums gets under way, many in the audience begin to sway to the music and tap out the rhythm. The communal sense of wonder is further heightened by the company’s shouting of “Un conte, un conte!” (“a tale, a tale!”) that prefaced each story, and by the clearly familial relationship among the performers (father, wife, two sons, and a nephew). The tales are told in French, with live simultaneous translation into English by an American interpreter (David Pelizzari) who successfully functioned on stage as an organic extension of the company. While waiting in turn to tell their story, the company also demonstrates how listening is an integral part of storytelling. The company does not sit in silence, but rather react like a raucous jury, recalling how the audience in Peking Opera shouts “Hao!” (“Bravo!”) when impressed, or how a congregation in a Baptist service rejoins a preacher’s words with [End Page 88] shouts of “Amen!” Transitions between the tales are made with vigorous drumming and dancing.
The stories they share, jocular narratives, cautionary anecdotes, tales of wonder and transformation, form a rich and fluid patchwork. In one tale, Esther Marty-Kouyaté (Sotigui’s Swiss-born wife) tells about a man who tries to balance a feather on one end of a scale by cutting off first a piece of his hand, then his arm, his leg, and finally his torso to no avail. Despite echoes of The Caucasian Chalk Circle or...