SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  



Griot Lutes

Griot lutes refer to those instruments which are traditionally exclusive to the male members of the hereditary griot castes. The term griot (originally spelled guiriot, pronounced gree-oh) made its first appearance in the travelogue Relation du voyage du Cap-Verd (1637) by French missionary Alexis de Saint-Lô, recounting his travels in Senegal two years earlier. Ever since, griot has been used as generic reference to a male traditional professional musician/praise-singer/word-artisan in certain West African cultures, locally referred to by a variety of terms, such as jali, jeli, gewel, etc., depending on the given language of his ethnic group.

Female members of griot families are called griottes and are traditionally singers rather than instrumentalists (the exclusive domain of the male griots), though, in the various Mande traditions, they do play an iron percussion rod called nege or karinya. In Griots and Griottes (1998), Thomas A. Hale does mention his encounter with one jeseré weyborey (Songhay for griotte) in Niger who played a griot lute, "Igudu, the wife of Al Haji Garba Bagna, accompanied her husband on the molo in Niger when I recorded him in 1980." However, this single example is the exception which proves the rule.

To be sure, the vocations of music-making and praise-singing are ancient and widespread throughout West Africa. But it is a serious mistake to label wholesale all West African traditional professional musicians and praise-singers as "griots."

One of the foremost experts on the griots, ethnomusicologist Eric Charry drives home this point in his critically acclaimed book, Mande Music (2000): "Although the term griot can be useful as it points to a deep unity of Upper and Middle Niger and Senegal river valley savanna-sahel culture, its usage may also encourage glossing over cultural distinctions that strike to the very core of identity in Africa. These distinctions may not be important for many Western writers, who may be unaware of them-- no doubt the indiscriminate use of griot by French voyagers was due to their lack of familiarity with local culture-- and even for much of Francophone West Africa, but in the lives of the artisans themselves they are crucial."

The term griot most accurately refers to a very specific phenomenon, social condition, and tradition that exists only in the caste systems of certain Islamized peoples. Griots are limited to the various peoples of the Mande language family -- some 53 related ethnic groups, such as the Bamana (also Bambara), Mandinka, Malinke, Susu, Soninke and so on-- as well as the non-Mande Wolof, the western FulBe (also known as the Fula, Fulani and Peul), Songhai (also Songhay), Sereer, Lebu, and Tukulóor. They are found mostly in Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, the heartlands of the griot tradition, and, to a lesser extant, among the extended branches of the aforementioned peoples in Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and Niger.

The griots of these Islamized peoples are akin to the iherden of the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg), poet/praise-singer/musicians who are members of the enad (blacksmith) caste, and the iggawin of the Moors. Likewise, in terms of physiology, playing styles and social/cultural context, the griot lutes are nearly identical to the Kel Tamashek teharden and the Moorish tidinit, which were almost certainly the archetypes for all lutes of the griot class.

For more on the origin of the griot lutes, please visit The Emergence of the Griot Lutes

The Morphology of Griot Lutes

The distinguishing physical features of a typical griot lute are:

  • A hollowed-out wood body. Most variants are oblong and canoe-shaped. On some, the oblong body has an elongated figure "8" shape with a slight waist.

  • A semi-spike neck which runs under the skin head and ends at the sound hole in the head, situated close to the lute's tail end. (Griot lutes are classed as semi-spike lutes because the neck doesn't transverse the entire length of the instrument's body to pierce through its tail end, unlike the neck of a spike lute which protrudes out of the body's tail.)

  • A raised fan-shaped wooden bridge inserted into the head's soundhole to slide onto the narrow end of the neck.

The two exceptions to this rule are the xalam gesere and the Fulbe/ Soninke/Diawara molo. These two instruments have round gourd bodies. While the single-string Fulbe/ Soninke/Diawara molo has a semi-spike neck and the fan-shaped bridge assembly-- all features characteristic of gourd lutes-- the xalam gesere is decidedly not "griot-like" in most of its physiology. 

Griot lutes generally have 3 to 5 strings of varying length, though some variants may have up to 8 strings. The first two longer strings are usually the melody strings on which different notes are produced by the player stopping the strings with his fingers; the rest are played as unstopped drones. Like the "thumb string" on the 5-string banjo, all types of griot lutes have a chanterelle, which is the shortest string closest to the body.

Again, it must be stressed that only griots play lutes of this class. Take, for example, the molo.

The term molo is used by various peoples throughout West Africa to refer to different lutes. Case in point, the aforementioned Songhai molo (also moolo) is a 3-string griot lute with a wooden body and a fan-shaped bridge. Conversely, the 3-string molo of the neighboring Hausa, despite appearing nearly identical to the Songhay instrument, is classed as a non-griot folk/artisan lute.


Because, unlike the molo of Songhai jeserey (griots), the Hausa variant has a cylinder bridge that rests on top of the instrument's skin head, a common distinguishing characteristic among the various disparate types of West African folk/artisan lutes. Even more to the point, the Hausa professional musicians and praise-singers who play the molo are not griots, despite the fact that they are often erroneously labeled as such by outside observers.

Likewise, the molo of the Fulbe is a 2-string gourd-bodied lute classed as non-griot folk lute primarily because it's played by cow herders rather than griots. This is brought into sharp relief by the fact that the Fulbe do have a griot tradition. Within cultures that adhere to a strict tripartite caste system, a very clear distinction is made between those lutes which are played by griots and those which are not.

Examples of griot lutes with wooden bodies include:

  • bappe (Wolof)
  • diassaré (Wolof, Soninke)
  • gambare (Soninke, Serahuli) (Michael Theodore Coolen, in his article, Senegambian Archetypes for the American Folk Banjo [Western Folklore, 43/2, 1984], contends that the Soninke gambare originally had a gourd body. Nowadays, however, the term gambare refers specifically to a 4-string wooden-bodied griot lute with a fan-shaped bridge.)
  • goumbale (Diawara)
  • hoddu (FulBe, Tukulóor) 
  • molo (Songhay) (also moolo)
  • n'déré (Wolof)
  • ngoni (Mande) (also nkoni, koni, konting, kontingo, etc.)
  • xalam (Wolof)

Griot lutes with gourd bodies:

  • xalam gesere (Mandinka)
  • molo

Playing Style

The most common style of playing the griot lutes is a 2-finger up-picking pattern in which the index finger plucks up on one of the melody strings, then brushes down all the strings in a strumming action. This is followed up by the thumb laying down a steady backbeat on the chanterelle. This is strikingly similar to the various traditional regional 2-finger up-picking styles of playing the 5-string banjo found throughout the American South that predate Earl Scruggs' bluegrass style. Some griots use the ring finger to tap out the beat on the instrument's skin head. Southern folk banjo players have been known to do this as well. 

In recent years, some scholars have mistakenly characterized the griot playing style as a form of down-picking, similar to the earliest known technique of playing the 5-string banjo, the stroke style popularized by the 19th century minstrels, and its descendants, the regional Southern folk forms of down-picking known as clawhammer, frailing, and so on. Down-picking is a technique in which the fingernail of a single finger (either the index or middle finger) is used to strike the individual melody strings in a downward motion, like a plectrum. This action is immediately followed by the player's thumb catching on the top short "thumb string" to create a rhythmic back-beat accompaniment.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe


Illustration Credits:

  • A Susu griot holding a lute with a figure "8" shape body. Conakry, Guinea, c.1910. (Collection of Shlomo Pestcoe)

Next: The Emergence of the Griot Lutes

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* Yummie * Musical Styles * Instruments * Features * News * Contact * Links *

* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Copyright © 2005 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 02/01/09