Oral Storytellers From Around the World
When we look back on the ways people communicated from the beginning of mankind, before cave paintings or a written language, we find that people told stories orally.
Oral storytelling is a story spoken to an audience. This type of storytelling is still practiced today. Maybe the first impression of ‘oral storytelling’ is sitting in a circle listening to one orator hundreds of years ago, but oral storytelling exists in modern culture as well. Many times, our oral storytelling comes through the radio, an audio file, a podcast or a conference speaker.
However, oral storytelling does not only look different over time, but also across cultures.
Each society and culture may tell the same story, but in a different way. Each culture has its own customs, themes and societal rules. It tells stories in the way that reflects the communities within which the stories are told.
Exploring the traditions of oral storytelling from around the world can help us become better storytellers and understand its role in our communities.
Griot (West Africa)
Although griots (also known as jeli in French) are known as oral storytellers in West African cultures, they are much more than that.
Griots are entrusted with preserving history through songs usually complemented by the kora, a harp-like instrument. They are singers, historians, teachers, and ambassadors among many other roles.
Not everyone can be a griot though. Usually children succeed their parent in the role of griot and are groomed for decades before they can take the name. Other children can be sent to griots to fulfill apprenticeships to learn and memorize the lessons, facts and events for future generations.
A griot’s main role is to be the cultural caretaker of their communities – they are tasked with remembering the past and keeping it alive for others while passing it down through generations.
Much like griots, oral storytellers in Hawai’i were highly regarded in communities because they knew history, lineage, values and traditions. Since there was no written language until 1826 in Hawai’i, everything was passed from generation to generation orally.
Storytelling in Hawai’i is understood as ‘mo’olelo’, or “succession of language”. Oral storytelling in Hawai’i is multi-dimensional. It combines not only verbal communication in the form of singing and chanting, but also adding physical movements.
Together - the chanting, singing and dancing - is what we know as hula. Hula incorporates dance and movements with the body to represent trees or waves which helps visually illustrate the oral stories. It helps retain the stories to pass on to the next generation.
The aboriginal communities in Australia have not developed a written language. Most of their history and cultural practices are passed down to children through oral storytelling.
Stories in aboriginal communities are believed to be owned in the sense that just because someone heard the story, it doesn’t give them the right to tell the story to someone else.
The elder who was designated as the storyteller was a cultural educator for his or her community. They held the knowledge, traditions, lessons and belief systems from the beginning of time. These stories are referred to as Dreamtime Stories which explain how Earth and people were created.
Some Dreamtime Stories are only told to select audiences. This not only protects the story, but also makes it more sacred. For example, some stories are strictly for men while others are strictly for women. These stories guide the roles of the community and teach survival in the unforgiving Australian heat.
The way stories are told change across time and culture and they are respective to the society they are told in. However, from the three storytelling cultures we explored today, we can see parallels to our own storytelling practices.
We have historians in our societies that write down events of history so that heinous events do not repeat themselves. We use multi-media whether video, podcast and captions in our marketing initiatives to tell brand stories. We also use copyright law to protect our stories so they can remain in their authenticity and ownership.
What do you think? As a cultural caretaker or educator in your community, do any of these themes parallel or resonate within your own storytelling?