|The Sunjata epic is possibly the best known feature of African oral tradition. A performance of the epic had been observed in the 14th century by Ibn Battuta during his travels in West Africa. In the 20th century a dozen of translations of recordings of the epic have been published, but more importantly the epic is still celebrated and transmitted orally in several West African States.|
The Sunjata epic praises Sunjata, the founder of the Medieval Mali Empire. Despite regional variants, those who transmit the epic, that is the griots (jeliw, traditional bards) all over Sub-Saharan West-Africa in the so-called Mande cultures, refer often to the village of Kela (Southwestern Mali) as the source of their knowledge (cf. Mauny 1973, Leynaud and Cisse 1978, Johnson 1986). The griots of Kela are of special importance because once every seven years they perform the "official" or "authoritative" version of the epic in a sanctuary called the Kamabolon in the town of Kangaba (3 miles from Kela).
The epic has received much attention in the West since the 1954 septennial ceremony was described by scholars of the "Equipe Griaule" (Dieterlen, 1955, 1959), De Ganay (1995) and others. For almost two years, I lived in the compound of the man who was responsible for the official recitation, translated his version of the Sunjata epic (Jansen, Duintjer and Tamboura, 1995), learned his repertory and attended the rehearsals for the ceremony. 
During the recitation in the Kamabolon, which lasts one night, the audience is kept at a distance of twenty metres and therefore most of the recitation is inaudible. Moreover, any kind of recording of the ceremony and the official recitation is strictly forbidden. This has lead to the idea, believed by the participants as well as supported by many scholars, that "secret" narratives are recited in the Kamabolon, since an induced version of the epic lasts four to five hours (cf. Ly-Tall, Camara, and Dioura 1987, Jansen et al. 1995), and the recitation in the Kamabolon seven to eight.
However, I have attended the rehearsals for the Kamabolon ceremony and, at a distance, the ceremony itself; recording of both events is forbidden. Having lived with the Diabate griots for eighteen months (and thus learning their repertory), I am convinced that - nowadays - the recitation consists of the (Kela version of the) Sunjata epic embellished with traditional songs of praise preceded by some well-known narratives about Mecca, the prophet Muhamed and the first muezzin Bilal who, all over West African Sahara, is considered to be the ancestor of Sunjata. .
In this article I will argue that, regarding the Sunjata epic, "discourse ownership" is an elusive concept since "ownership" is, from performance to performance, delimited by those who claim to have the status to give permission to the griots to perform the epic. In relation to the prestige attributed to a performance, social groups will claim to be involved in giving the griots permission to perform. "Ownership" is too legalistic a concept to account for the social intricacies related to an individual performance of the Sunjata epic; one cannot "commodify" an oral tradition by comparing it to a text - an oral tradition performance is a social event. My argument is based on local discussions of performances as well as the conflicts raised by the recordings and subsequent publications of the Kela version of the Sunjata epic.
|Division of tasks regarding performance|
One of the griots of Kela is kumatigi, "Master of the Word". He is chosen among the adult Diabate and is appointed for life. He has the status to know the entire history and is responsible for the recitation of the Sunjata epic in the Kamabolon. Moreover, he has the task to perform standardized praise lines during funerals and other important ceremonies. Except at the septennial recitation, he will never recite the entire epic in public. During my fieldwork in Kela, I attended ten events in which parts of the Sunjata epic were recited. Several of these were not considered by the Kela griots to be Mansa Jigin ("The Genealogy of the Kings", the local generic term for the Sunjata epic), although on the basis of a textual similarity, I thought they were. For instance, in October 1992, when they recited the text of the Mansa Jigin in Bamako, the Diabate systematically denied my suggestion that this performance was a Mansa Jigin. According to my landlord in Kela, present-day kumatigi Lansine Diabate (born 1926), it had been "praising names" (matogoliw). Unlike in the case of a Mansa Jigin, the audience was allowed, even invited, to record this performance. Thus, a Mansa Jigin is dissimilar to a Sunjata text; it is an event which can exist only in a particular context.
When the kumatigi recites a Mansa Jigin, he is checked by a few older men who may correct him a few times during the recitation, or may "propose" some words the kumatigi is "searching for". The text of the Mansa Jigin is highly standardized. Having translated the recorded performance by the kumatigi (published as Jansen et al. 1995), I could easily follow most of his recitations during the rest of my stay, although the text is actually difficult for the Malinke themselves to understand.
The position of the kumatigi is ambivalent. People who visit Kela to learn "words" and "meanings", are sent to the kumatigi, as I was. After my arrival the old Diabate instructed me that I had to refer myself to Lansine for whatever kind of information I was seeking. However, within Kela, the kumatigi has to accept the idea that some older men know the tradition better. This is a fine mechanism to keep the tradition intact and untouched in case the kumatigi makes a mistake in the recitation. Yet, after having heard all the old men speaking quite often, I know that some were more entertaining than others, but that Lansine was by far the best at reciting the highly standardized Kela version of the Sunjata epic. This skill was also mentioned by my Diabate age group as being Lansine's most outstanding talent.
The old men claim that no one knows who will become the next kumatigi, but an analysis of the careers of the old and the activities of the young (in combination with some incidental pictures and recordings from archives), demonstrates that there are only a few candidates among every generation of Diabate (nowadays a few dozen of adult males in total - fifty Diabate were allowed to enter the Kamabolon during the 1997 ceremony). For instance, since Lansine Diabate was the official "confirmer" - the person who says naamu ("indeed") after every sentence - at a recitation by former kumatigi Kanku Madi, recorded in 1976 by the Indiana folklorist John Johnson, as well as during Ly-Tall's 1979 recording (infra), the next kumatigi will be one of the few persons who nowadays has the role of "confirmer".
The "young" (people in their twenties) told me in private several times that Seydou Diabate - a relatively young man - will likely become kumatigi, when together they will have grown old. Seydou is said "to have inherited Kanku Madi's voice". He recited a part of the 1993 Mansa Jigin, when Lansine was abroad.
I was told twice, in 1996 and 1997, by his age group that Seydou had inherited eight music cassettes with recordings of Kanku Madi's voice. For me, this story merely reflects the young men's admiration for Seydou; they can hardly imagine that a person is able to reproduce a long oral narrative without using external mnemo-technical help. However, after having observed Lansine for months and listening to his advice, I know that reproduction of the text is the result of a regular solitary training. Actually, no one is supposed to see you rehearsing the text since no one is allowed to claim to know it. When I once asked Lansine how he had learned his words, he replied: "A spirit (jin) appeared to me."
The idea of "mistake" (fili) is related to the performance style, not to the content of the narrative or the explanation of the meaning of the words since the Diabate believe that they know the truth anyway. Lansine Diabate was a good reciter: he seldom mispronounced a word, in particular not when reciting praise lines. Only once I witnessed Lansine twisting his tongue on an archaic expression (during a concert in Rotterdam [Netherlands] in 1994) and he was very upset about it.
What matters is the correct pronunciation in particular contexts; that is the "meaning" (kúrú). The comprehension of the ideas represented by the "meaning" of words in the Western sense is less relevant than knowledge of social prescriptions of usage. The text itself is beyond discussion: the Mansa Jigin is a communal heritage of the Diabate, and its content - in general lines - is widely known. Thus a valuable version of the Sunjata epic is a collection of words recited by the right person in a particular context. Then one may ask: who is the "owner" of the discourse on Sunjata: an individual (the Master of the Word), or his family, the kings of Kangaba (the Diabatés patrons) or even another group?
|A "Mansa Jigin" performance as a source for conflict|
Remarkably, as far as I know every publication of an epic recording has resulted subsequently in a conflict. A member of the Ly-Tall team, which recorded the epic in 1979 (published in 1987), told me that he experienced big trouble with the Diabate afterwards. Apparently, they accused him of having made false promises and complained that Ly-Tall had approached them via their hosts, the Keita from Kangaba. Thus they had the obligation to recite the Mansa Jigin while the Keita took most of the gifts offered by the Ly-Tall team. (However trivial these claims might appear, they reflect significantly on the way Western scholarship may unwittingly upset a fluid yet finely tuned world of rights and obligations.)
When, in 1992, I recorded a Sunjata text with kumatigi Lansine Diabate, it was on his initiative - although I was of course very enthusiastic. Lansine argued that he was responsible for arranging the necessary permissions. The recording itself was a small event, attended by a few people. Although it was known, more or less, that the recording was made, Lansine forbade me to talk about it in public.
A conflict arose in 1995, after I had sent my publication of the epic to the Diabate. Lansine was accused of "having sold the secrets", "having falsely informed his guest about correct behaviour" and of "receiving money every month on a bank account in Bamako". The book itself did not matter to them; that was only paper It took me weeks of negotiation and several statements in public before Kelabala, the most prestigious Diabate, determined that the whole issue had to be "buried". Remarkably, the Diabate continued to give their blessings to my work, although it was clear that they maintained a brotherly rivalry with Lansine.
In my opinion, the conflict represented an inevitable social process. and I have the strong feeling that this particular conflict had at its roots an element of rivalry between the various Diabate lineages. Rivalry between groups which represent themselves as brothers are ever present in Mande (cf. Leynaud and Cisse 1978, Jansen 1996). Moreover, in Mande, social relationships are hierarchical (often in terms of older/younger), but at the same time an individual is not supposed to rise above the group. "If someone tries to prove to be better than the others, we will make him fall," Kelabala said in the 1988 BBC documentary "Skies over Africa". The publication of my book was challenging the equilibrium, thus Lansine was attacked even though, in my opinion, the conflict over Lansine is a process in which the prestige of the performance was adapted retrospectively.
The transition of "discourse ownership" into "performance permission" is also at play during the Kamabolon ceremony. Although in the 1950s and 1960s researchers were allowed to make pictures during the ceremony, this is unthinkable nowadays. The luggage of anyone who comes into the neighborhood of the Kamabolon is checked over and over for audio-visual equipment. Even trees are checked, and animals and tornadoes are chased away since they might be transformed human beings. The checking is done by young men who are responsible for the organization of the Kamabolon ceremony.
Yet every seven years there are people who attempt to record the ceremony. In 1997, a team from the national Mali television service was in Kangaba more than a month before the ceremony in order to seek permission for a recording. Permission was given to them by the Keita village chief. (Some say that this permission was broadcast on Malian television). Then the team went to Kela. The Diabate were clear: "It is not our affair to give permission to record the ceremony. However, we forbid you to record our words." Disappointed, the team returned to Kangaba where they found out that the young men were outraged, since permission had not been asked of them. Moreover, someone told me that the classificatory oldest Keita man was upset that the team had directed itself to the village chief and not to him, although he was, according to tradition, the inheritor of the Kamabolon sanctuary.
In the end, the film team got "full" permission to film the restored Kamabolon immediately after the ceremony. However, when they took out their equipment as soon as the new roof was put on top of the sanctuary - the symbolic end of the ceremony - they were attacked by young men and had to put their equipment back in its cases. That night, Lansine's son Damori assured me that the members of the film team had been lucky that they had not been killed.
The film team had made the mistake of underestimating the ceremony's importance for so many groups; the ceremony was much more than an average Mansa Jigin recitation and apparently, minor aspects in the five day ceremony appeared to be very important to the groups which executed them. And so many groups felt to be in the responsible position to be consulted before a recording was allowed.
|Concluding remarks: beyond discourse ownership|
Although scholars imagine or represent the Sunjata epic / Mansa Jigin as a text or a discourse, for the performers themselves it is a social event which must be performed "in the local context" and as communal property in order to make it valuable; a performance in Bamako "de-identifies" the Mansa Jigin and everyone is free to record the performance (see above). The context of the recitation determines if a performance is prestigious. Thus the number of people who claim to have the right to give permission rises according to the prestige of the performance.
Of course some people may think that either Lansine and I, or the Ly-Tall team, or the Bamako film team have been opportunistic or have misunderstood the local rules and failed to ask the permission of the appropriate "owners" of the text. However, such owners don't exist: a performance is a social event and its prestige as a "communal" property is related to the social context in which it is performed .
The discussion of permission is highly dynamic, stretching from before the recording until years after. I think that many scholars have faced similar situations, irrespective of from whomsoever they have requested permission to record; afterwards others want to be incorporated in the result since publication turns a modest event - an induced performance - into something prestigious. The more prestigious the social context of the performance, the fewer persons are allowed to perform, and the more persons claim the right to give permission.
The problem with a written text or a tape is its fixed nature: it has been transformed from a social event into a commodity. As a performance a Sunjata epic can be subject to adaptations in the people's memory, thus continuing the debate on discourse ownership/performance permission. A recording or transcription is a break in the social fluidity which is the discourse on Sunjata.
The more prestigious the performance is (made), the more people must be involved in the giving of permission. Although the permission to record may still be adapted up to the moment the recording starts (see what the young did in Kangaba), a recording is a point of no return. Thus, a recording has a vehement and immediate impact on social relations with the society having to cope in retrospect with the fact that the publication has upgraded the performance. The process of coping with this transition is not about the content of the narrative - letters are dead words, only the spoken word has real power - but about social relations.
Conflicts are acts of communication and therefore a conflict on the right to give permission to perform (before or after the performance, recorded or not) is a necessary and inevitable part of the process of digesting a performance and determining its impact. Such processes are incompatible with our ideas of copyright since these focus on the information represented by a text, while a Mansa Jigin gets its relevance by a correct use in relation to a certain context as well as to the impact on this context. I have been told of a law from the 1970s exempting from copyright anyone given permission by the griots to record their words by any medium; but this national Malian law is, of course, unknown and therefore irrelevant to the griots themselves.
The Mansa Jigin represents a body of orally transmitted knowledge which is widely known, and which is embedded in daily life. Its correct recitation is an issue to which much prestige is attributed and is therefore firmly fixed within complex social structures which have the "Master of the Word" in the central position. The publication of a Mansa Jigin/Sunjata epic is not a threat to the knowledge itself or an act which evokes discussions of "discourse ownership". Conflicts are the result of the "irreversible" and commodified nature of recordings or printed work since they have - in retrospect - an impact on the performance as a social event. The prestige of a performance is expressed by the number of groups that claim to have been consulted to give permission for the performance. This is a fluid dimension that can be adapted in retrospect in discussions on permission for performance. Printed matter is too static for such processes of adaptation. Of course these social processes on a micro-level do not answer my questions related to the topic of discourse ownership; my analysis even tends to deny the possibility to determine discourse ownership without referring to power structures and power games. However, these internal struggles to determine influence in the process of giving permission to performance is highly relevant among the groups we consider as the potential owners of the discourse.
. Research in the period May 1991-April 1995 as well as research in the period July 1996-June 1998 was financed by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (grant W 52-533 and grant W 52-708). More information on the Sunjata epic in Kela can be found in the French translation of my Dutch Ph.D. thesis (1995) which will be published in 1999 by Karthala). Moreover, I wrote several articles on the Kamabolon ceremony. On rehearsals of the epic: "An Ethnography of the Sunjata epic in Kela" In In Search of Sunjata: the Mande Epic as History, Literature and Performance. R.A. Austen. (ed.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998 (written in 1993) and "The Sunjata Epic - The Ultimate Version" Research in African Literatures (forthcoming in 1999; this article discusses the rehearsals before the 1997 Kamabolon ceremony). On the ceremony itself: "Hot Issues: the 1997 Kamabolon Ceremony in Kangaba (Mali)" International Journal of African Historical Studies 31-3 (1998, forthcoming).
Texts of Kela versions of the epic have been published as Vidal (1924), Ly-Tall et al. (1987), Jansen et al. (1995). Praise songs by Kela griots have been published as PAN-records (1994).
. For a different opinion, see De Ganay 1995, who recorded events in 1954 with the "Èquipe Griaule". For a critique to De Ganay, see Van Beek and Jansen.
Kamabolon à Kangaba (Mali) en 1954. (Forthcoming. Review article of De Ganay 1995).
G. Dieterlen. "Mythe et organisation sociale au Soudan français", Journal de la Société des Africanistes. T. XXV (1955), pp. 38-76 and T. XXIX (1959), fas. 1, pp. 119-138.
S. de Ganay. Le sanctuaire Kama blon de Kangaba - Histoire, mythes, peintures pariétales et cérémonies septennales. Paris: Editions du Sud, 1995.
J. Jansen. "The Younger Brother and the Stranger : In Search of a Status Discourse for Mande" Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines XXXVI-4, 144,1996. pp.659-688.
J. Jansen, E. Duintjer and B. Tamboura. "L'Epopée de Sunjata, d'après Lansine Diabate de Kela". Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1995.
J.W. Johnson. The Epic of Son-Jara - A West African Tradition Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
E. Leynaud and Y. Cisse. Paysans Malinké du Haut Niger Bamako: Imprimerie Populaire, 1978.
M. Ly-Tall, S. Camara and B. Dioura. L'histoire du Mande d'après Jeli Kanku Madi Jabate de Kéla. Paris: SCOA, 1987.
R. Mauny. "Notes bibliographiques" Bulletin de l'I.F.A.N., T. XXXV, série B, 3, 1973. pp. 759-760.
PAN-records, 1994 An Bè Kelen / Griot Music from Mali (CD 2015, Leiden).
J. Vidal. "La légende officielle de Soundiata, fondateur de l'empire Manding" Bulletin du Comité d'Etudes Historiques et Scientifiques de l'Afrique Occidentale Française 7. pp. 317-328.
Dr Jan Jansen is attached to the Department of Anthropology of the University of Leiden (Netherlands). Trained in Medieval History and Cultural Anthropology, his Ph.D. dissertation was on the Sunjata epic and the way it is performed and transmitted by the griots of the village of Kela (Southwestern Mali) where he spent almost two years. In 1997, he attended the Kamabolon ceremony and the rehearsals for the Sunjata epic performed during this ceremony. For some of his publications, see the Literature and Note  in his article.