West African Civilization (1400-1591) - Storytelling and the Arts
Standards: 7.4.5
  • Describe the importance of written and oral traditions in the transmission of African history and culture.
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Storytelling and the Arts

Key Terms and People

griot: professional storyteller and oral and historians

proverb: wise saying

polyrhythmic: playing two or more different rhythms at the same time


Section Notes

The Telling of Tales

  • West Africans used oral history, poetry, folk tales, and sayings both to teach and to entertain. Griots served kings and nobles. Griots passed on their people's history, and urged leaders to rule justly. Families also shared folk tales at home to teach right from wrong. Proverbs provided a quick way to transmit wisdom.

Music, Dance, and Art

  • West Africans also created unique music, dance, and art. The arts helped pass on each group's history and culture. Young people learned songs that taught them adult responsibilities. The most widely used instraments were drums. African drummers created polyrhythmic drum music. Dance, which accompanied music, was an important part of West African life which was used for religious ceremonies, funerals, festivals, and celebrations. West African artists created art for many different purposes; sculpted portraits of kings and queens, plaques and figures to record events and people, clay figures of soldiers, wooden carvings of ancesters, and masks of gods and spirits.

The Legacy of Empires

  • The empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai no longer exist. However, the legacy of those empires is evident in Africa. The languages of Mali and Songhai are still spoken, Griots still sing about great kings, musicians still play complex rhythms, families ans castes are still important, markets and farming are still important, Islam and traditional religions continue to be a major influence. West African culture has spread to other nations as well. Starting in the 1500s, slaves that were brought to the Americas also brought with them their West African traditions.


Summary: Oral traditions and the arts thrived in West Africa. They passed on culture and traditions from one generation to the next.

Study Guide Questions

What was the value of folk tales and proverbs?

How were songs used to pass on culture?

What elements from the days of empires influence West Africa today?

What functions do griots perform?

How did the oral tradition transmit West African Culture? Explain.

List three traditional arts of West Africa.

How did West African culture influence the Americas?

Practice Test

Homework: Choose one
  1. Workbook Chapter 6 Section 3 (Page 77)
  2. Answer three of the study guide questions using complete sentences.
  3. Draw a picture of something important from this section and summarize this section of the text (three sentences minimum).