VIFF 2012: Griot brings a culture to the forefront

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There are two things that Volker Goetze wants out of music: emotion and magic. “If you listen to, say, Louis Armstrong, within three seconds there’s magic in the recording, and that’s what I look for,” he says, calling from a New York City hotel.

For some, exploring the jazz past would be enough, but not for this German trumpeter and filmmaker. In search of living magic, he went to West Africa a decade ago, and it was in Senegal that he discovered the performer who is both his musical partner and the subject of his latest film, Griot. A virtuoso on the harplike kora, Ablaye Cissoko is a griot—a member of a hereditary caste that used music and storytelling to mediate between kings and commoners, and between this world and the supernatural.

“In some ways the griots were probably controlling or directing society,” says Goetze, noting that they were both respected for their knowledge and feared for their power. But conditions are changing for the griots: between Senegal’s dire economy and global access to technology, the old systems are breaking down and new ones rising. The filmmaker fears that griot culture might be a casualty—unless, like Cissoko, the maintainers of oral tradition can adapt.

“He’s a transitional figure because his music becomes more and more personal,” Goetze says of Cissoko, who’ll perform with him when the Vancouver International Film Festival hosts the world premiere of Griot at the Empire Granville 7 Cinemas tonight (September 27) and Vancity Theatre on Sunday afternoon (September 30). That’s not entirely out of keeping with griot tradition. Once again, Cissoko and his peers are connecting very different realms, only this time it’s the Third World and the industrial, the old and the new.


Watch the trailer for Griot.

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