helpful notes for The Epic of Son Jara

The Epic of Son-Jara

CONTEXT:

1.   The founding of the Mali empire is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose life and exploits are the subject of the Son-Jara, the national epic of the Manding people.
2. The rise of ancient Mali in the thirteenth century is closely associated with the spread of Islam into the region, which had begun in the seventh century.
3. The principal custodians of the oral tradition are professional bards, known among the Manding as dyeli or belein-tigui.
4. The epic of Son-Jara developed by accretion, which together with its oral transmission may account for its three distinct generic layers.
5. The ideological function of the epic is the construction of a Manding common identity under a founding hero.

KEY CONCEPTS and STRUCTURE:

1. The oral form of the Son-Jara is a record of the events that lead to the formation of the Mali empire and a repository of societal values. The founding of the Mali empire is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose life and exploits are the subject of the Son-Jara, the national epic of the Manding people. With the exception of events re-created in the epic and one in Arab historical records, actual details of Son-Jara’s life are unknown. He has been transformed into a figure of myth and legend in the oral tradition.
2. The rise of ancient Mali in the thirteenth century is closely associated with the spread of Islam into the region, which had begun in the seventh century. With Islam came literacy, which enabled an elite educated class to emerge and serve early rulers of the three best-known medieval empires in western Africa—Songhay, Ghana, and Mali. In the oral tradition, Son-Jara is a descendent of Bilal, a companion of Muhammad, whose family migrated from Asia. The invocation of the epic assimilates Son-Jara with Adam of the Koran as well as the Jewish and Christian Bibles, and makes reference to Bilal.
3. The oral tradition in western Africa remains an integral part of life and comprises various expressive forms such as folktale, legend, myth, and poetry, which distinguish it from ordinary speech. The principal custodians of the oral tradition are professional bards, known among the Manding as dyeli or belein-tigui. For Westerners, they are more widely known under the French term griot, a legacy of colonialism. The region was conquered and divided in the nineteenth century by colonialists from France and Britain. Not only did these bards recite from memory, but they also endowed their recitations with imaginative use of language and free improvisation.
4. Most likely beginning as a series of praise poems addressed to Son-Jara, the epic was expanded to include extended narratives of his life and achievements. The epic of Son-Jara developed by accretion, which together with its oral transmission may account for its three distinct generic layers. The first layer is the narrative framework of structural episodes and genealogies. The other two layers are praise poems and songs. The task of the griot is to bring the narrative to life, to reenact it dramatically.
5. The Son-Jara is political, with its focus on the rivalry of two brothers for succession to their father’s throne. The defection of Fa-Koli from the side of his uncle Sumamuru to that of rival Son-Jara is decisive for the outcome and sets a moral tone of “good” over “evil.” The ideological function of the epic is the construction of a Manding common identity under a founding hero. Other African narratives include Kabili, Da Monzon of Segou, the Mwindo epic, and the Ozidi saga.

One Response to “helpful notes for The Epic of Son Jara”

  1. Michael B Says:

    As I read the Epic of Sonjara I found that it was an incredibly difficult read as the author attempts to make it historically accurate with the use of true names and places. I did however enjoy the historical account for the Manding people; that was quite an impressive tale of where they came from; who were the originating families that were the basis for its tribal beginnings; and who they credited for their prosperity and overall greatness. One of the things that I thought was very interesting is how the telling of their history was accomplished by a minstrel for centuries; and how it seemed to change slightly as it was told to different ruling houses to show the present monarch having a directly favorable influence on the prosperity of their people. As the Mali people progressed though the centuries; the tail would emphasize their great conflicts, their triumphs over enemies and the great economical, technological, and cultural advancements. It seemed ironic that they chose one specific individual known as Son-Jara Keita the hero or the person responsible for their peoples rise to greatness in Sub-Saharan Africa. In this work of literature it seems that the they exemplified Son-Jara Keita as the charismatic all encompassing almost god like figure in their history; in the tail he is looked upon as the deliverer from their meager uncivilized past to their enlightened, civilized present; it seems that they accredit him solely for their emergence into the classification as a great and powerful Empire. As you told us in the hints section there is no real proof that he existed however in my mind I think if you make an individual a deity factual proof of his existence is not necessarily required in fact it can only bolster his status of deification. A parallel to this however is in the case of Jesus the Jewish culture took great pains to make a reasonably factual account of his existence. In that situation that culture needed a physical foundation for their beliefs; whereas the Manding people were satisfied and as I see it took comfort in the fact that their great deliverer more a mythical manifestation, they had no real need to have physical proof of Son-Jara Keita’s they felt that just the believing of his existence was enough. One thing that I find curious is that historians are even expecting to find any substantial evidence he existed, the whole reason these people had an oral form of their history was because they did not have an organized form of written language during the time Son-Jara Keita was believed to have lived. As educated as the historians that are trying prove his existence you would think that this fact would not escape them; I guess just because you are “Educated” it does not mean you are smart about some things.

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