Dir. Volker Goetze
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The Griot is, at least from my own interpretation of Volker Goetze's film, the very essence of African history and culture. These hallowed individuals are singers, storytellers, community leaders, praise-bearers and keepers of oral histories and traditions. To learn of their history and to be introduced to one of the truly legendary Griots, Ablaye Cissoko was a truly and deeply personal revelation to me.
I'm not African by any stretch of the imagination, but like all of us on this planet, I share the blood of humanity with the African people as they do with me. We are, ultimately the product of stardust and as such, we are the progeny of the Heavens. Call it God, call it a higher power, call it a supreme being, call it dark matter, call it quantum physics, call it the Drake Equation - call it whatever you like. We are all one and it is with both awe and respect that I feel blessed to have been introduced to the dazzling power of this great musician.
Griot is a stirring, colourful and moving documentary and as such, a lyrical and poetic exploration of the West African tradition of the aforementioned Griot, an important personage in African culture with a clear relationship to the indigenous populace, but more importantly, how it seems to have influenced the entire African diaspora - especially in America.
The structure of the film is simple - all the better as this exposes so many factual, historical and finally spiritual properties of the Griot. You will experience heart achingly gorgeous music, you will see it performed, you will experience the joy of dance and musical expression and most of all, you will learn of the great lament of the Griot in the contemporary world. Culture and tradition is a blood right, but history has toyed with it, colonialism and slavery has tried to suppress it, contemporary African leaders seem to have no interest in its preservation and finally, even the Griot is an a world where the very role needs to both grow and yet return to its very roots.
I truly believe the concerns of the Griot are ALL of our concerns and the message Cissoko imparts via Goetze's cinematic eyepiece is truly universal and something that touches us all.
It might even touch you personally as it did me.
Allow me to share a deeply personal and cultural connection to this great story. My heritage is Ukrainian - a culture and language that has been battered, slaughtered and oppressed for over a thousand years - primarily by Russia. Perhaps the most horrific piece of recent history that has always haunted me is the systematic destruction and brutalization of the Ukrainian culture and its people by the Butcher Joseph Stalin. He not only orchestrated the genocide of ten million Ukrainians during the man-made famine known alternately as the Harvest of Despair and the Holodomor, but for me, the most horrendous genocide was a cultural decimation. Stalin not only implemented forced Russification amongst the Ukrainians, he destroyed one thousand years of history.
Here is why I was so personally moved by this film - my people were agrarian in nature and their entire history and culture was maintained in a very strict oral tradition by men who were not unlike the West African Griots. In Ukraine, they were called Kobzars. Like the Griot, their talent and place in the world was not through formal training, but through blood. They were the keepers of the country's history. Joseph Stalin invited all the Ukrainian Kobzars to Russia for a national conference to celebrate and discuss how the Kobzars would remove the yoke of Czarist oppression and adopt a new direction in praise of the revolution, of communism, of Stalin. Once all the Kobzars were assembled under one roof, Stalin had them all shot. One thousand years of history gone in one fell swoop.
To see the brilliant, caring, committed Ablaye Cissoko as he laments the horrid lack of a proper cultural centre, the indifference of a government to tradition and a millennia of history and culture was so profoundly touching. All the more so because the Griot still exists and his place in African culture - bound by blood - will only be eradicated if it is done so by force. Thankfully, we have filmmaker and musician Volker Goetze to put this important tradition in front of a camera and preserve its sound, image and yes, even soul so that the tradition can travel well beyond the borders of West Africa, beyond the borders of its intended audience - to travel into the hearts and minds of humanity all over the world.
My people lost their Kobzars, but as long as the Griot exists and thrives, I am confident that through the power of stardust, the river of blood that binds all of us and most of all, through the soul cleansing grace and beauty of the Griot's music, the history and tradition of man will be reflected in the words and teachings of the great people of West Africa. This is a film that gives me so much hope that culture is what binds all of us.
As Cissoko states, "Without culture one becomes a person without an identity."
He has nothing to fear, however. His blood flows as does the blood of others like him. It flows into the music of the soul and it cascades out via the tributaries of the Earth and thank whatever power is responsible, but the Griot thrives. Cissoko is here to soothe us, to offer praise to the heavens and to the ancestors - who ultimately are the ancestors of all of us.
For we are one.
"Griot" is launching a cross-Canada tour via Ryan Bruce Levey's Vagrant Films Releasing and Publicity. The film begins at the gorgeous Royal Theatre in Toronto - a perfect launch pad as it's still the one standalone cinema in the city with the most exquisite sound and picture quality. The film, miraculously, will be launched by a concert that features blaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze. For tickets and further information about the concerts and screenings across the country, please visit the official Griot website HERE.