Spoken words: storytelling festivals continue the griot tradition.

Author:Simmons, Judy D.
 
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Preachers do it, and teachers, too--they tell stories. Nowadays, from the corporate workplace to therapeutic settings, storytelling is appreciated as a tool of self-discovery and instruction. Dedicated practitioners and listerners gather at festivals that celebrate and demonstrate storytellings enduring power. Festivals are the favorite venues of tellers and audiences for creating the sharing experience that distinguishes storytelling from other performance arts.

"The spoken word is taken from the page and made alive and vibrant and faithful to the exact time and moment that it is spoken," says widely respected American storyteller Rex M. Ellis, vice president for the Historic Area at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, explaining the magic of storytelling. "I never tell a story the same way; every time it's the first time the audience has ever heard that story that way, even from me. What's special is the immediacy and the uniqueness."

The ancient art has blossomed anew in the United States in the past 30 years. Professional storytellers like Nothando Zulu, director of the Minneapolis-based Black Storytellers Alliance, and Jamal Koram of Philadelphia's Keepers of the Culture oral tradition organization, make a living at steady gigs with schools and libraries during "storytelling season, when school is open and, of course, there's high demand around Kwanzaa, Black History Month and King's birthday," says Baltimore librarian Bunjo Butler, a member of the Griots' Circle of Maryland, an affiliate of the nation's largest black storytelling group, the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS).

NABS annually produces the major black storytelling festival in the nation, which now attracts upwards of 500 people(see "Storytelling Festivals and Resources, 2003" page 62). Fellisco Keeling, NABS outgoing administrative assistant, who has worked with the organization for the past 17 years, highlights the participation of young people from pre-school to early 20s. "They tell stories; some make up their own, get them from books and parents. They might do a story in rap form. Some do a lot of drumming and some dance," Keeling adds.

The first NABS festival, in 1983, followed the association's 1982 founding by Mary Carter Smith and Linda Goss. Smith, also known as Mother Mary and Mother Griot, grew up, she says, in the coalfields of West Virginia and "bloody" Harlan County, Kentucky. Goss is a maiden of the Great Smoky Mountain mists near her...

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