Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bambara Castes in Society - 2000

This is the second topic we talked about. Castes were and still are (especially in the more remote villages) a large part of society. There are very strict rules and expectations depending on what caste you are from. The role of castes is disappearing, due in part to the incorporation of more Western beliefs and practices.
First on the list are the nobles. Like the others, you are a noble because of your heredity or family lineage. If you are from the noble lineage, you cannot do certain things.Playing musical instruments or singing was one of them. That was considered a lower, not as productive occupation. If you belonged to the noble lineage, you were not to marry someone from a lower caste - even if you really loved the person and even if your family was very fond of that person.
The first caste below the noble is the blacksmith. The blacksmith caste did the ironwork, made metal tools and other items for farming. Members of the blacksmith caste could also do woodcarving, pottery, and make jewelry.
Below the blacksmiths are the griots. Although the griots were not the highest caste, they held a very important position in society. They were the entertainers for the nobles and kings, singing praises of the king, etc. Griots had to be very knowledgeable of the society's history and lineage. Everything was passed on orally, usually in the form of music. Being in the continuous presence of the nobles, the griots heard a lot of important or confidential information - keeping secrets was also an important role of the griots. Today griots still are some of the best musicians, and can be seen entertaining at weddings and other events. However, instrument playing is not solely dedicated to the griots anymore. Even the kora, a griot-only instrument, can be played by others in present-day society.
After the griots come the shoemakers
The fü na caste (essentially the tattoo and body piercing people)
Lastly, are the slaves. This was an interesting discussion in itself. Although he was not proud of this, Balla felt it was very important to acknowledge that slavery was (and to some extent still is) a part of the society in Mali (as well as over most of Africa). Slaves might be people from that ethnic group or sometimes captured people from another ethnic group. The trade and use of slaves went on for a long time before Europeans began this exploitive process. Along the Timbuktu trading route, slaves were often traded for salt - a very precious commodity. When I was in Mopti, we visited a Tuareg slave village. Although some are no longer required to be slaves, they know no other way and continue to live like (and sometimes among) the Tuaregs. Stripped of their culture and identity, these former slaves did not possess the same pride and happiness that I saw in the rest of the Malian population.

Another interesting note: Salif Keita (an internatinally-known Malian musician) was actually of the noble class. But because he loved music and chose to play music, he was rejected by his family (approx. 1971). Since his fame has spread, his traditionalist family has decided to finally accept him and his choice of playing music.

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