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Oral Epics from Africa; Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent.

John W. Johnson, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher (Eds), Oral Epics from Africa; Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), xxii, 331 pp.

This compilation of excerpts from twenty-five African epics introduces the reader to the dynamic epic traditions of Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Egypt, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). By offering glimpses into these traditions, the editors are hoping to fill a gap in literature studies and contribute to a shift in the perception of epic toward a more appropriate global, rather than western interpretive context.

The publication of written excerpts from an oral tradition can be misleading because the focus is necessarily on text as it has been recorded and transcribed. Micro-contextual factors such as intonation, accompanying musical performance, gestures, audience reaction and participation, and tempo or pacing, for example, which give a text its voice cannot be transcribed, although the editors have made an attempt to provide brief descriptions of performance settings, where available. Instead, editors must rely on translation and transcription to convey not only narrative content but the nature of oral epic performance as well. The immediacy of the genre in its actual realization is conveyed well in the excerpts from epic performances recorded in Mali and Guinea, where the exclamations, repetitions, and use of dialogue that are part of a bard's repertoire are faithfully transcribed. The following excerpt from the "Epic of Son-Jara" narrated by Fa-Digi Sisoko (transcribed and translated by John W. Johnson with Char les Bird, Cheik Oumar Mara, Checkna Mohamed Singare, Ibrahim Kalilou Tera, and Bourama Soumaoro) is one example of an effective transcription that brings across the performative nature of oral epic:

The excerpt from the "Epic of Fa-Jigi" narrated by Seydou Camara (transcribed and translated by David Conrad with the assistance of Sekou Camara) also captures some of the power of an epic performer's narrative abilities:

The shade-tree has fallen,

Death has removed it from me.

Numu Faraban was a shade-tree,

Death has removed him from me.


Death has taken the shade-tree from me.

Sele of Koulikoro was a shade-tree,

Death has removed him from me.

Numu Kulumba the shade-tree has fallen,

Death has taken him from me.

Numu Camara Jan was one of the shade-trees,

Death has removed him from me.

Death is bad,

The shade-tree has fallen,

Death has removed it from me.

Heee, wei!

Kuda Jan Kali was a shade-tree,

Death has removed him from me.

(Page 33, lines 870-87)

The excerpt from the "Epic of the Bani Hilal" narrated by Shaykh Taha Abu Zayd (transcribed and translated by Dwight Reynolds) illustrates a different style of performance, in which qasida-style poetic verses sung to the accompaniment of a rabab (a two-stringed spike-fiddle) are strung together to generate an entire epic (12,00 verses or 54 hours long, in this case):

I am the servant of all who adore the beauty of Muhammad,

Taha, who asked for intercession and obtained it.

Listen to what the Qadi Fayid said and what he sang:

My eye aches and sleep frequents it not in this state.

It goes to sleep with good intention, but awakes filled with caution,

As if all the hooks of life lay in sleep's domain.

If my burdens lean, with my own hand I set them straight,

But if the world leans, only God can set it straight.

Happy is the eye which sleeps the whole night through,

Shaykh Taha: Ah yes, by God!

It passes the night in comfort, no blame is upon it.

But my eye is pained and keeps vigil the whole night through,

It passes the night troubling me with all that has befallen it.

(Pages 232-3, lines 33-8)

Brief as they are, most of the excerpts in this collection effectively communicate the nature of oral epic performance as it occurs on the African continent. The editors' introduction offers a brief background to some of the issues that have attended scholarship on African oral literature and discussions surrounding the nature and definition of epic and its realization in Africa. The book's format makes it useful as a complementary text in introductory folklore, literature, or African history courses.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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