The Culture Keeper

Story co-written by Jodi Gray and Marion Cabanes

Lamine Sonko - © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

Lamine Sonko – © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

His name originates from the nickname of Prophet Muhammad, Al-Ameen, meaning ‘the trustworthy’. Lamine Sonko, a talented artist of oral tradition, shares, in his trustworthy words, everything about his life as a Griot. Also known as a Culture Keeper, “the Griot is the eyes and ears of the community, also a teacher, a philosopher, an icon of African History and the voice of Africa”. Welcome to the vibrant life of a Griot residing in Australia who combines the stories, rhythms, music and poetry of Africa.

You don’t become a Griot

It all started when the young Lamine “was crawling”, as he tells it. Lamine was born to Griot parents and as the tradition commands being a Griot is in your blood. In other words, a griot is almost a different African tribe that fills the gaps between the myriad of tribes by sharing knowledge of African and tribal history. Since a very young age, the drumming sound was already beating as the same pace of his heart and he started his ‘sharp’ education from his uncle.

It was at the age of seven that his talented and renowned parents asked his uncle to be a teacher for him and his siblings. Like their son, Lamine’s parents are prodigiously talented. His mother, Oumy Sene, was the first solo dancer for Le Ballet National Du Sénégal. His father, Bouly Sonko, is the Director for the Senegalese national drum and dance company Waaro Siita.  Their art is a means by which they can share the culture that they keep. It also meant many months away at a time from their children to travel with their work – and the children spent much time with their uncles and aunties – in Senegal it takes a “whole village to raise one child”.

Lamine’s uncle was happy to teach him and his siblings the music and songs of a griot.  The lessons took place every day after school and would last up to 10pm. He was introduced to dum dum drums with sticks from his uncle and then learned more instruments and techniques from his older brothers and sisters.

“As a child I was attracted to rhythm but as I was growing up I got all the meaning of music. When I turned 14, I made the decision to not go to high school and to join my parents who were invited by King Hassan II of Morocco to perform at his palace”.

Since then, it was very clear for Lamine that his life would be dedicated to culture knowledge and sharing. Before coming to Australia, Lamine also joined the French artistic company – Compagnie des Cris directed by the playwright Gilles Laubert – a successful and unusual work of converting the most beautiful Greek tragedies into African rhythms. This is how a Griot keeps the wonderful culture alive outside the continent.

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

The rhythmic heart of Africa beats in Dakar, Senegal

Dakar is the westernmost point of Africa where a cultural melting pot was created in the old days of slave trade. Goree Island is located only a few kilometers away from Senegal’s coast and was known to be the ‘gate of no return’, the last stop for slave trade. It is because of this transatlantic trade that many tribes were displaced to Senegal and the unbought or unwanted slaves were left behind in Dakar. Lamine describes his hometown as being “a vibrant city and Teranga (Senegalese hospitality) is a custom deeply embedded in Senegalese’s life. It is very crowded, very colourful and rhythmically beautiful because of the Wolof language. You hear the drumming rhythms used by shop keepers to attract clients’ attention“. Those embedded musical rhythms went all the way to the Americas where Lamine explains: “slaves weren’t allowed to take their drums so they had to make new instruments to find the same rhythms“. These newly built instruments gave birth to genres such as salsa in South and Central American and to the Brazilian samba.

Lamine’s knowledge covers other regions of Senegal where he traveled as part of his Griot education. He discovered the variety of languages and dialects, rhythms, instruments, dances and histories of each tribe. To him, this is what makes Africa rich. He goes further by saying “sharing knowledge is to keep culture alive. The Griot’s knowledge is respected and each song talks about one part of Senegal“.

The Griot’s first instrument was a cow horn used when the king had to call and communicate with the people. The sound of the horn “carrying a happy or sad message, reached people and the community would meet under the shades of the baobab tree to listen and discuss the matter”. As Lamine says, proudly and smilingly, “this is how villages were governed in Africa“.

Not only are many instruments used to give rhythm to Griots’ stories, language is also a crucial part of African rhythm. He explains that he “learned rhythmic language first with elders and then played drums. This ancient knowledge makes me proud”.

‘Let’s gather in peace’

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

One of the fundamental principles of a Griot is “to let Africa give you”. Lamine uses his Griot experience and his artistic creativity in a way to “make it fun, meaningful, open so that people can feel that there is more in this knowledge through dance and rhythm”.

Today the Griot’s main instrument is the drum mostly known in Africa as ‘Djembe’. Its origin dates back to when mothers and workers in the community were clapping and singing to get motivated at work. Lamine explains:,

Because of the clapping, they got sore hands and ask the village leader to find a better idea. The village leader calls the Griot for assistance and Griot gathers the community. The hunter says that he can provide animal skin, the tribe which takes care of nature provides pieces of tree, the fisherman provides ropes and the blacksmith metal rings“.

The ‘Djembe’ is therefore the symbol of the community gathering in peace to come up with a solution. From the bambara language (native of Mali), ‘Djembe’ comes from the combination of the words ‘Anke dje’ and ‘Anke be’ meaning ‘let’s gather in peace’.

‘African Intelligence’

Griots play an important role in Africa’s history. In the past, the Griot’s work was so admired by the king and then warriors, that they worked with Griots to relay their stories and exploits, and embed them in history. As Lamine tells us, “the Griot was the advisor of the king, and is the eyes and ears of the community. He is the library of Africa beholding thousands of years of stories“. Where each tribe has its own role in the African society, as some are cattle raisers, other nature carers, the Griot is the link between the diverse cultural communities.  He describes how “the Griot provides entertainment, information and keeps culture alive and that is what people are attracted to and pay respect to“.

Like many other Griots, Lamine possesses what he calls ‘top secret knowledge’ that he has acquired through his Griot family, his travels around Africa, community elders and the multiples tribes he has met and learned from.

“It is in people’s surnames that we know what stories to chant when invited to a family party“.

Basically, history can be seen in people’s names. However, despite people having a different history or customs, and different roles in society, griots understand that “we all need and fit one another”.  One might say that Griots possess unique and fundamental knowledge of humanity and their expertise might be seen as comparable to the level of a PhD Doctor.

In the end what makes a good Griot? Without hesitation Lamine says “a good griot is someone willing to learn, open and has an understanding of sharing. The fundamentals are a solid knowledge and an endless learning process”. Contemporary instruments have been incorporated into the Griots’ practice to more widely share their knowledge and learnings among different cultures; Lamine learned how to play and compose songs with his guitar. This continuous learning process enables him to share African tradition with new Australian knowledge. He beautifully describes that “the bag of a Griot is never empty, there is always something to share”.

The Griottes (female griots) are as important as the  griot in the African society. They participate to some ceremonies related to women’s business such as marriage, child birth, etc. Their songs are beautiful and aim at challenging society.


Oumy Sene

Oumy Sene, Lamine’ s mother, the first solo dancer for the Ballet National du Sénégal.

Cultural affinities with Australia

Since arriving in Australia in 2004 for love, Lamine has been incredibly busy learning and sharing his stories and art. He completed studies at the VCA in Community Cultural Development. At the same time as sharing African stories and culture with Australians, Lamine is impressed by the “amazing culture here in Australia”, and his experiences in Australia shape his story-telling and are part of the culture he ‘keeps’ as a culture keeper (a griot). Lamine has found a special connection with the indigenous population in Australia.  He is drawn to the richness and cultural diversity that can be found in indigenous Australia and sees many parallels with Senegalese culture – the importance of the extended family, community way of life, the outdoor living and socialising and the use of dance and music to tell stories and pass down history. Lamine was interested to discover that there are similar traditional dance movements in indigenous Australian and Senegalese dancing. It is a connection that has led to music and dance collaborations with Indigenous artists s in Arnhem Land.

Lamine found the natural beauty of Arnhem Land similar to the landscape of his native Casamance (South of Senegal). For Indigenous Australians and Africans the connection to the land is strong and undeniable. Both share this community way of life where elders are respectfully called ‘Father’, ‘Mother’, ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’. A lifestyle where a child is raised by the community instead of only the two parents. This upbringing within the extended family and the community helps the child “to build a strong bond and trust with them.

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

A Griot in Australia: Finding new creative ways

Love bought me to Australia to form a family back in 2004“.

Lamine often performs as a soloist but is, and has been, a member of a number of bands such as African Intelligence. He has toured around many of the most famous music festivals in Australia, as well as overseas including at South by South West in Austen, Texas. He also provides West African “Dimbaya” singing, drumming and dance workshops and performanes. Lamine tells us that Dimbaya means family – to be part of the family. Students learn how, through West African music and movement, stories from the past can be told in the present. Sharing stories and culture is at the centre of all Lamine’s actions.

In sharing culture and stories, Lamine recognises the importance of both adults and children in a society. It important to have respect for elders in any society who hold within them so much history and cultural understanding, but it is also important to realise that children “are the future”. It was his late wife who stirred up a desire to work with children. She would spend hours each night writing stories for children and Lamine sees his music and dance performances for children as part of her legacy to connect with their own children and other children in the community. Lamine first started by playing around with songs and dances with his daughter at home and this developed into something bigger. Today he shares African culture with children through the organisation African Party he runs, which delivers cultural workshops to schools, educational venues, youth and disability services, and recently performed at a Save the Children event. Lamine speaks of the joy in performing to, and working with, children – children are honest so if something works with children “it always works with adults!”

Lamine has the sort of energy that we all aspire to – positive, warm and seemingly endless! On top of raising his beautiful children (who are themselves talented – his daughter recently won a hip hop dance competition), rhythmic story-telling and performing at a myriad of events, and his new role as a Festival ambassador, Lamine has recently taken to working with the fashion industry. At the moment he is working with local designers in Sydney to combine beautiful batik patterns from Senegal with western design. We are very much looking forward to the clothing line coming out!

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

Lamine Sonko © Jodi Gray 19/10/2013

Recently, in recognition of his work, Lamine was chosen by Multicultural Arts Victoria to be a Melbourne Festival ambassador. His role as an ambassador is to help those from Melbourne’s diverse cultures engage with the Melbourne Festival. There is no doubt that Lamine is the perfect person for such a role.

Lamine will be performing at the Boîte Singers’ Festival from Friday 10 to Sunday 12 January 2014 in the charming Daylesford. For more information and to book your ticket, please click here.

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5 thoughts on “The Culture Keeper

  1. frank8199 says:

    Great post!!! I would recommend to change the turquoise color of the text to ease readability on a white background.

  2. gaudibr says:

    With each new story a more pleasant surprise! Thanks for the very instructive tale about the griots and their awesome way of sharing stories.

  3. says:

    Thank you very much Marion and Jodi!
    I receive many great feedbacks from lots of people who read the story and they all appreciated the stories… This gives people like my self the opportunity to express themselves in sharing our history and life experiences!!

    Well done and keep up the good work you doing!

    Merci-Abaraka-Thank You- Jah Jeff:-)

    • mcabanes says:

      My pleasure, Lamine. I’m very happy that people like the stories, it’s very encouraging for Jodi and I. Thank you for being part of it. It was a great experience to meet with and write about you. Merci. Marion

  4. Greenpea says:

    Thanks for sharing this story, it is always inspiring to hear about the journey of an artist and how Lamine’s life experiences have informed his projects since coming to Australia. Such a well written piece and a really interesting blog too, thanks so much for your work. Tx

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