The Past Is A Well. Interview with Babacar Mbaye Ndaak

Ekaterina Golovko Babacar Mbaye Ndaak
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I met Babacar Mbaye Ndaak for this conversation at his home in Guédiawaye, a banlieue of Dakar in May 2021. He is one of the most prominent traditional storytellers and promoters of oral culture in Senegal. The French term “griot” stands for someone who passes on their society’s history, especially through stories, poems, and music, and who takes part in ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.[1]

I wanted to discuss with him how oral culture and archives could (co-)exist, what was the relationship between written and spoken word, between listening and reading. I was interested to find out his position on possible ways of conservation of oral literature through recording and archiving, as it is most commonly done.

KG: Assalamu alaykum, Babacar! I would like to talk with you about oral culture and archives, to learn what you think of it.

BMN: I’m not a specialist of archives, I have friends who are more competent than I. But as for oral culture in this country, I would count myself as being a specialist and this is why you’ve come to visit me. My name is Babacar Mbaye Ndaak. Ndaak is my mother’s name. In the Wolof tradition we add the mother’s name to our own. It’s like a form of protection.

I am a professor of history and geography. It’s an opportunity. I come from a family of traditional historians, and that’s also an opportunity. My life therefore revolves around history and oral culture as root and proof. I must serve history, I must serve heritage, immaterial heritage first and foremost. It’s who I am, and my vocation.

Our heritage teaches us that people come from Africa, and the keepers of this knowledge did not write it down, or did so in a different manner. In particular, they wrote it with memory. And memory was ink for the pen. I believe that today we must show, restore, reinforce, and renew immaterial heritage, which revolves around the word and its derivatives within this system we call “oral culture,” a system of communication within which the word and its verbal manifestations are central.

Oral culture carries and supports civilizations, including ours since we left Egypt and lost our scribes, which we called sesh. They wrote what people thought and said. They transcribed it using hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs are sacred words. Word therefore precedes the pen. The written is hardened and the word can soften it. The written is softened by the word.

Who speaks of “word” speaks of “language.” It’s the reason why each language supports a heritage, a treasure, a wealth. It’s why those who work from their language become the best, because they think starting from their cultural capital. It’s a wealth, the mysteries of which can only be carried by those who forged them. For example, in the Wolof language there is “the created,” concepts, words which translate the reality of the world. These words strike at the heart and spirit of those who express them, mobilizing them. And this makes them act in a way that is better than if they worked in a different language. In their language they feel and know the root of words, but in another language their research would be rooted in foreign words. This is what is important.

Therefore, I think that we must identify the genres, the locales of conversation, the keepers, and the means of recovery by both pen and technology. How much writing do we have here in Senegal written by the word? I’m not saying “written by the pen” because with the word we also write. It’s another way of writing. It’s writing by the word.

We write with the word first, before writing with the pen. How many stories haven’t yet been told? How many epic tales, fairy tales, myths, legends of ours haven’t yet been revealed? How many hymns of war, songs of seeding, of harvest, of baptism haven’t yet been identified, referenced, recovered, and shared?

I think we must commit each culture to each language, collect, transcribe and write, transmit to inspire and nourish artists who want to rise up through authenticity rather than reproduction, artists who by the way write according to the ideas and behaviors of other places.

Oral culture is a vehicle for myths, legends, sagas, and tales. They don’t all have the same functions.

My friend and big sister, Aminata Sow Fall[2], a well-known writer, formulated this in a brilliant idea that speaks of the different functions of the storytelling arts.

She says that “the myth enchants.”

Each myth tells a story of origin. Each people has its origin myth: how it was created, where it comes from. It was formalized in a text that is taught and which belongs to what we call the storytelling arts.

“The saga galvanizes.”

When we say saga, it’s to rekindle the memory, courage, and determination of people who listen because the saga contains the romanticized history of those listening, a history made marvelous but with a historic grounding: a truth, a historic fact.

“The legend amazes.”

All legends contain something wonderful because, pedagogically, we have a better recall of texts that are crafted stylistically: texts crafted from the word using powerful images, hidden images, new images, fantastic images.

These texts achieve their goals and stay in the memory. This is why those who wanted to teach used the tools of oral culture: so that it would stay in the memory.

“And the tale educates.”

It is its principal function. Today, storytellers think we must entertain. I say no. Entertainment is the mean by which we transmit education, which is the function of the tale. Entertainment is only a mean within the storytelling arts to transmit the object of education that is carried by the tale.

Archives are the domain of immaterial heritage, all that I’ve just said — tales, proverbs, myths, legends, sagas — all that comes from the word is also archive.

For the first sources of the history of Africa, I think we must begin with oral heritage. What to do with this oral heritage? Transcribe it in all languages, digitalize it, then transcribe it with the pen for the libraries, whatever you want! [laughs]

KG: All the libraries!

BMN: All of them! So that in every library we can install both of these categories of remembrance and collective memory: the digital and the physical, using pen and paper.

There are people who prefer to listen, there are others who prefer to read, but listening is a form of reading: it’s a different way of reading. But reading is a way of listening. It’s listening with your eyes!

We must especially foster all the senses and means by which people can access heritage. We must bring together all the means and reveal them. We must push for listening, for reading. They are the two great means by which this oral culture can be accessed. But we must also trace, draw, like the Egyptians did. They drew and they wrote. When we see the Sphinx in Egypt today we can read it. We can read its form, its position, its age, we can read it by its significance.

Often when practicing oral culture, people are not interested in material archiving. We have put too much confidence in men and women of words, people who want to write words, who must be studied by cross-checking, by comparison. This must be done because no word is neutral and all words can be perverted. No word is neutral.

The griot therefore intervenes according to their education and what they will bring to history and which was given them to bring before history.

I salute all griots, all griots that existed, because they allowed the conservation of the best part of Africa’s history.

I think of the griots that have recently left us, Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté who brought back the Great Saga from the pen of the honorable Djibril Tamsir Niane. All those who resemble Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté who allowed us to retrace, starting from our words, the history of our great people, even if we must analyze them, compare them with other periods. I think we must absolutely salute them. But this doesn’t stop us from reviewing, controlling, criticizing the work that they did. Criticism allows us to authenticate and valorize them, to say if they were right or wrong.

I salute the scribes of Egypt and all those who wrote in Greece, who have allowed our scholars and all others to access science.

All the scholars of the world, all the way to our Cheikh Anta Diop, had access to science thanks to ancient texts. It’s the reason why we must write. Writing is the word of the world.

To write is the word of the world. We say “bind” in Wolof. The Wolof say “yalla dafa bind adduna” (“Allah wrote/created the world”). It’s the reason why when the French say “created” we say “written.” “Mbindéef,” the creature, “what has been written.” All that has been written, “lépp li mu bind, mbindéef la.” It’s why archives must especially revolve around the written word. The one who writes can be mistaken in their writing but what they wrote is true because of the will to write. “Bind” is “to write.” “Mbind” is “writing” and the person who comes from that is “mbindéef” as is what has been written, the creature, animal, plant, or man, all that is living. Especially man. How was man written by God? By the word: we write by the word. God wrote by the word. The word is therefore the root, the element, the origin from which God created the living. Therefore, I said: “in our Wolof culture, the word preceded the pen.” But the pen prolongs the word, valorizes it. It’s the reason why we salute the griots, because someone does not trust their word to someone they don’t respect.

Everywhere we keep the forms of the past, that is what we call “archive.” And any archive is a source, a source of writing. Any archive is a source of writing, for writing, for speaking, for thinking anew, for filming, for drawing.

That is the use of keeping memory grounded in something concrete that we can touch, mobilize, read, in all meanings of the word.

KG: What role do you think archives can have?

BMN: Do people frequent libraries today? Archives? Archives must also go towards people. How? We must bring the archives to them, through television. I say that television must mobilize what is in the archives, in a simple and pedagogical way. The exploitation of archives to create documents, documentaries, and records. These are the ways in which television can carry history…

Our television, European television, the television of each country has a mission of participating in a census, because everything we film today for example will enter in the domain of archival. Archives renew themselves, persist. We must therefore mobilize them with a soft touch, with intelligence – with intelligence because we must not play with the past.

We must know what the past said.

We must preserve it.

We must reveal it.

Because it nourishes the present and the future, because there are things that can kill the present and the future that we must avoid revealing to everyone. This is how griots thought.

We can move forward with the same rhythm even if we can’t do it at the same speed.

Jërëjëf Katia!

KG: Jërëjëf ! (“Thank you”) So then, do you think that television is one of the means for spreading the knowledge of the past?

BMN: Yes, through documentaries and records. It’s its primary role, its mission: to recall what has been preserved.

KG: Do you think that television in Senegal does this in any way?

BMN: No, unfortunately. What I think is that very few have tried. But I think that we live too much in a certain present, a present that is a little too celebratory, too folkloric to think about such serious things that nourish the roots of life.

A people must know its memory, interrogate it.

There are things that must be corrected, things that must be brought forward. People must be conscious of it, democratically, and television in itself is a democratic tool.

KG: And what do you think of the usage of texts from oral traditions within music? Is that also a way to reveal tradition, history?

BMN: Within music many are active in revealing history. It is the artists within the trad-modern type that exposed the possibility of singing traditionally with modern means.

KG: Which texts have been used in this type of songs?

BMN: Texts from griots. Genealogic songs, which speak of ancestral history, people, families, regions, etc…

The genealogic song is a song that requires the one singing it to end with a lesson. They are sung in Wolof and other languages.

For example, in Senegal when we sing about a marabout[3], when we sing about someone, we sing about their genealogy. These songs go back far in history and tell of ancient acts, realized by our ancestors in their lives, which must act as a lesson, as last rites, as motivation.

KG: Are there genealogic songs in trad-modern music?

BMN: There are folkloric songs on varied themes, yes.

When you listen to the songs of Youssou N’Dour there is a lot of modernity and niceties in there: he speaks of our time, of the politics, of great people, of Nelson Mandela, of the things of life, of love, etc… But when he started, he sung of people and of their genealogy.

KG: Is there someone who doesn’t sing of genealogy but of tales, for example?

BMN: All artists from Senegal started by singing tales. Youssou N’Dour, Ismaila Lo, Baaba Maal, Thione Seck for the most part began with choruses and ditties taken from tales that they set to music.

KG: Do you have an example of a song title?

BMN: Picc Mi (“the chick”). It’s a song that is found in an ancient tale. These are songs that made Youssou N’Dour famous, songs taken from tales. Omar Pène, Thione Seck, who just left us: they all began with songs taken from tales. This is what made them famous.

KG: It was the beginning of their career?

BMN: All of Senegal’s modern artists, men and women, were discovered through songs that lay dormant in traditional tales, which they recovered, awoke, and revealed and which in turn revealed them.

They revealed these songs and these songs revealed them and they revealed them to us. We can mention “Fari l’ânesse” by Omar Pène, “Tajabone” by Ismaë Lô. It’s wonderful.

KG: When young people listen to these songs, do they know the texts come from traditional tales?

BMN: Those who know, know!

KG: This way they learn the tales, through music?

BMN: Those who know, know, but many don’t have access to this culture, don’t have the curiosity to look for where the text comes from. But many know. Many know because often in families there are leftover of tales, of traditional stories that children know.

KG: Do these songs use influences from modernity, from the present? Are the texts somewhat adapted to the present?

BMN: Yes, a little. Often, we take the verse, sing it with its melody and add modern texts. Starting from the verse of the traditional song we can create new, modern songs.

KG: How did Youssou N’Dour and other singers become interested in singing traditional tales? Why did they use these texts as inspiration?

BMN: It was floating around in society. They heard it in baptisms, weddings, cultural happenings, and it inspired them. They also searched for them: what can I sing so that it sounds Senegalese, original, and African?

One must look in the past. The past is a well. The past is a well where we can go seek water that we need. I like this sentence. Keep it! The past is a well. When we say “well” there is no need to continue the sentence. It’s all there.

KG: Yes, it’s all there. Thank you very much.

Translated from French by Laurent Fintoni

This contribution is published in the framework of the Whole Life Academy.

  1. Meaning of ‘griot’ in the Cambridge English Dictionary 
  2. Biography of Aminata Sow Fall 
  3. Muslim religious leader and teacher in West Africa 

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