Sunjata the Lion King and His Griot

The Malinké Lion King and the Empire of Mali

Robin Edward Poulton aka Macky TALL


The child cripple Jata, the boy who became a Lion King

In the year 1212, a long, long time ago when Robin Hood was an old man and Bad King John sat on the throne of England, an African King called King Naré Maghan Konaté Keita[1] married a second wife called Sogolon Koudouma.[2] Their first child was a small boy and the King named him Jata.

The parents were very happy with their baby Prince Jata, but to the dismay of his mother, Jata was unable to walk. His legs didn’t develop properly and it may well be that, as a baby, Jata developed the terrible disease called polio that often withers one or both legs and leaves its victims as cripples. Poliomyelitis is also known as ‘infantile paralysis’ – which tells you what happened to young Prince Jata. These days, we vaccinate children against polio, which has almost disappeared. Put of course, 800 years ago no one knew about the polio virus and vaccination.

The most important person in any child’s life, is his mother and Queen Sogolan was a powerful woman. Her family totem was the Buffalo, the most powerful animal in the West African bush country.  She had married King Naré Maghan, whose family totem was the Lion, the fiercest animal in the savannah and the King of Animals. The dynastic name Keita means ‘lion’. With such noble ancestry, it was clear to the fortune-tellers that the son of the Lion King and the Buffalo Queen would be a heroic figure, and so they prophesied. But when the baby Jata was struck with infantile paralysis, people wondered if the prophecies were false: for how could a child cripple become famous?

Prince Jata’s mother Sogolon, ‘the Buffalo Woman’ was obviously an exceptional person, as well as being powerful and well-connected. Tradition tells us that she was ugly hunchback, with the strong, rounded shoulders of a water buffalo. The word ‘sogolan’ has come to mean ‘hunchback’ in West African storytelling. Perhaps Prince Jata’s mother was very ugly, but that is not certain: perhaps she was so stunningly beautiful, that her parents gave her the ugly name ‘Hunchback Buffalo Woman’ to fool evil spirits which are attracted to (and do mischief on) beautiful girl children. Very ugly, or very beautiful? Either way, Queen Sogolan was a very striking woman, and her family ‘totem’ was the powerful African water buffalo. She is the most important figure in Sunjata’s story.

As is often the case in Africa, the young prince’s name was modified in people’s mouths. People in the royal palace used to call him ‘Sogolan Jata’ – using his mother’s name with his name so much and so often, that the two names became fused together and became condensed to ‘Sunjata’.

One day when he was around 7 years old, Jata saw his mother crying and he asked her what was the matter. “I am crying, my child, because you cannot walk. At your birth, the old women foretold that you would become a great king, yet I cannot see how you will have any future unless you can become whole again.”

“If that is what is making you sad, Mother,” said the young prince, “I will learn to walk.”

Prince Jata dragged himself along the ground to the blacksmith’s forge, where the skilled smiths were making iron plows and swords, spears and horseshoes. These were some of the most revered men in the Kingdom of Kangaba, where Jata’s father King Naré Maghan ruled. Blacksmiths in medieval Africa were thought of as magicians , because they were able to take the elements of earth and air and fire, and transform them into iron.

Prince Jata told the Chief Blacksmith of the Royal Court of Kangaba that he needed to walk. Chief Blacksmith of the Royal Court pulled out a large bar of iron, and handed it to Jata. According to Malian legend, the Chief Blacksmith told him, “Stand with this bar of iron, and the strength of the iron will go into your legs.”

Jata had strong and powerful shoulders, because he had spent the past seven years dragging himself along the ground with his arms. He seized the iron bar, and pulled himself upright …. And as he did so, the iron bar bent and the prince’s legs strengthened. Leaning on the iron bar, he walked back to his mother and it filled her with joy to see her son standing and walking at last.

Maybe the legend is a way to explain that the Chief Blacksmith of the Royal Court of Kangaba created iron calipers that strengthened Sunjata’s withered lower limbs so that he could walk: that would also explain what the Blacksmith meant when he said,  “the strength of the iron will go into your legs.” Either way, Sunjata was now able to walk.

Meanwhile the politics of the region were very unstable. The Ghana Empire had become weak, and Moors were raiding the countryside to steal cattle and capture people as slaves. The many small kingdoms like Kangaba were unable to resist the Moors separately, yet they were unable to unite to create a untied front against the northern invaders. The King of Soso, Sumanguro Kanté, decided to take matters into his own hands, and he set out to conquer the neighbouring kingdoms and strengthen the region against the Moors. He was successful, but on the way he killed the kings he conquered, including Fata, King of Kangaba.

Prince Sunjata and his mother and sisters were forced into exile. Sunjata grew up in the Kingdom of Mema, where he learned to be a fine horseman: and once he had mastered horse-riding, Sunjata’s powerful arms and shoulders made him a formidable fighter and war leader, helped by the fact the Sujtata was handsome and intelligent.

As the story of the Lion King tells us, Sunjata returned 17 years later with an army of his mother’s allies, and reconquered his kingdom. He succeeded thanks to his mother and thanks to his sister Nana, who became a favorite in the court of Sumanguru and betrayed his secrets to her brother Sunjata. This is the story of strong women, because it was thanks to the strength of his mother and the cunning of his sister the spy, that the Lion King conquered and reigned.

Sunjata’s greatness came in part from his praise singer griot or jeli[3] – the man who composed and sang the legend of Sunjata. Throughout history – on every continent including Africa – a great king is one who chooses great ministers and whose story is told and sung (literally and figuratively – we ‘sing their praises’) across the generations. There would be no Sunjata Keita without Bala Fasé Kouyaté, the most famous historian, diplomat and praise singer of Malian history.

Malian Griots and the legend of the balafon

In the center of the griot legends lies the musical instrument called balafon,[4] African ancestor of the Greek xylophone and its modern descendants like the hammered dulcimer. The balafon is the most famous musical instrument of the Mali Empire, founded in 1235 by Sunjata Keita, the Lion King. Every king has his griot  – his spokesman and advisor, historian and praise-singer, minister and diplomatic envoy. The balafon is synonymous with Sunjata’s personal griot Bala Fasséké Kouyaté, the most famous praise-singer of them all

“In the beginning was the WORD.  It is the WORD that distinguishes Man from other mammals.  With the gift of speech came the possibility of articulating needs, then wishes, then affections and love, and finally developing new thoughts and ideas and beliefs and philosophies…The griot or jeli therefore represents civilization as much as he (or she) articulates the historical evolution of society.

The European word ‘griot’ comes from a Portuguese word meaning ‘troubadour’. The Malinké or Mandinka (or Bambara) word jeli is close to the word for ‘blood’.  The griots, then, are more than mere musicians: they are the lifeblood of culture. Griots are the historians and guardians of oral tradition and it is through their words and music that the people of the Malian Empire know who they are and what their ancestors have achieved.”[i]

The Mali Empire, one of Africa’s most famous medieval kingdoms, was founded in the year 1235 by Sunjata Keita, the original Lion King who was forced into exile as a child, and who came back as a young man to defeat Sumanguru or Soumaoro The Wicked, the old King of Soso who had killed his father.

Sunjata Keita’s tutor and advisor and chief ambassador was Bala Fasséké Kouyaté the griot, the most famous of all griots. He was such a magician on the balafon (wooden xylophone) that the musical instument bala became a part of his name.  His epic stories of Sunjata’s prowess are still sung by griots, and by famous Malian World Music singers like Sunjata’s descendent, the singer Salif Keita. These stories made the Lion King so famous that even Walt Disney couldn’t ignore him.


The Legend of the balafon

The instrument’s origins are shrouded in myth, but the balafon is associated with blacksmiths, the priests of Mali’s ancient monotheism. In the late 1100s, the Sorcerer King of Soso, Soumaoro Kanté, owned one that he guarded it from human touch: either he made it himself, or he found it while out hunting (legends and oral history have a charming way of mutating), but the king’s instrument is still kept in his ancestral village and it has only once traveled: Soumaoro’s balafon was carried to UNESCO in Paris, France in 2000 and exhibited there to celebrate the Millennium.

I traveled to Paris to see this marvelous exhibit. The balafon sat alone in the middle of a large marble hall, surrounded by a cord to discourage people from coming too close. This instrument – the very one supposed to have been hand-crafted by the Wicked Sorcerer King Soumaoro Kanté 900 years ago – seemed small in such a vast space. Yet I would not have dared to approach it more closely than the cord allowed, for I could see that it was festooned by magic charms, jujus and gris-gris. Do I believe in magic? Well, I certainly do not ‘not believe’ in something I understand so little and which could have such terrible consequences if I transgress its rules. I took one step back as I saw the little black goat’s horns filled with who-knows-what-evil magic? I looked in awe at the magic, at the age, at the legend that sings of the beginning of Mali.

The legend tells us that Fasséké Kouyaté the griot was sent by Sunjata as an envoy. When he arrived in Soso, King Soumaoro was out hunting. Seeing the balafon, Fasséké began to play it beautifully. When King Soumaoro heard the music, her returned immediately to the palace to see who had defied him: but he was so charmed by the quality of the music and the way Fasséké was singing his praises, that he decided not to kill the griot. Instead, he kept him and added ‘Bala’ to his name: the king then slashed through his Achilles tendon to ensure that Kouyaté could not run away, and would play his balafon and sing his praises for ever. This partly explains why Bala Fasséké helped Sunjata kill Soumaoro Kanté and regain the throne of his father to create the Mali Empire.

Legend says this is how the balafon became the griot’s tool (adopted from the Blacksmiths) and that it predates other traditional melodic instruments like the 4-stringed ngoni (ancestor of the banjo) and the 21-string kora, the West African harp. This is of course unproven; and although other legends claim that King Soumaoro owned the first-ever balafon, we can safely say that all these instruments were invented in Ancient Egypt 15,000 years before the Mali Empire – and probably more like 55,000 years earlier since cave pictures of harps have been found in France that were painted 35,000 years ago).


[1] Pronounce NArey MAgun Konatey KAYta

[2] Pronounce as it is spelled: SOgolan KOUdouma.

[3] Written in French notation as djeli the root of this word is joli or jeli meaning ‘blood’.

[4] In the Malinké language Balafon is a compound of two words: Balan is the name of the instrument and  is the verb to play. Balafon therefore is really the act of playing the Bala.


[i] ‘GRIOTS – West African Poets, historians and Musicians…’ by Robin-Edward Poulton, Virginia Friends of Mali, 2008.