baba-koraI know this is going to strike many as a bit unorthodox but, one of the most fascinating and useful devices that I ever learned to use in my storytelling, from other griots, was the art of “the digression.” Normally, especially in the West, narrative delivery has a fixed pattern. Words, either read or memorized, are rehearsed and delivered in an expected, acceptable format. For a speaker to deviate from a well organized text or script is tantamount, in many arenas, to a betrayal of audience expectations.

I am forever indebted to the griots with whom I’ve studied for helping me to break away from this clinical structure of oral delivery. When I have given workshops and seminars on this topic you can feel the slight tension in the air as if I’m slaughtering the golden calf. The apprehensions generally encompass the notion that professionalism is in painstakingly preparing and effectively delivering that which you have prepared to deliver. This level of performance or production I liken to the journeyman’s level of the apprenticeship process. At this level the artesian has learned to efficiently manipulate the tools of her trade and utilize her skills to the contented benefit of the client.

There is another level beyond this rote repetition of proficiency. The level beyond this is the mastery of one’s craft. It is not enough to simply become proficient at what you do; you must push beyond the boundaries of experience. This is not done for selfish reasons or to self aggrandize; it is done to more effectively deliver your message to the six senses of each of your listeners and observers.

For the griot, digressing from the performance everyone expects to experience is not a lapse in performance organization or judgment. It is rather a tool applied systematically for a desired effect. A spontaneous or what may appear to be spontaneous; digression from the narrative is really not. The digression is often meant to season the imaginative spirit of your listener, enhance their aural experience and prepare them for something further down the road in your oration.

A master teller can employ these digressions spontaneously, at will and when inspired by occurrences during the assemblage. This improvisation may appear to be spontaneous but it is usually a practice developed over years and years of study and performance in front of countless numbers of people.

Let me give you an example of a simple digression and how it may be used. Let’s say you are telling a story of historical significance and the characters are all very lively. A short digression from this tale might be to interrupt the flow of the story with a smile or chuckle and then share with the audience the thought that just crept into your head. You may artfully digress by drawing comparison and contrast between the period and characters you are telling about with specific contemporary events and equally colorful modern-day personalities. The purpose of such a digression might be to ingrain in the minds of your listeners the parallels between antiquity and contemporary society in such a way that it becomes memorable to them. Fusing the digression with a bit emotional delivery (humor, sadness, anger, etc.) may elicit a subtle visceral response from your listener which can help to mark the experience for them.

The rule is simple: “Definitely Do Digress.”

If you comprehend the method then the madness will be all the more enjoyable to you. I have been in the company of griots who have employed this method to an extreme where the digressions were actually the main content of what they wanted their audience to receive and the core narrative was simply the vehicle for its’ expression.

Word of caution! Anything can be overdone. Be very cautious in your implementation of various aspects of the craft. “This year’s folly can become next year’s foolishness.”

The trick to learning to employ digression is to overcome whatever preconceived notions you may have about what a story is supposed to be. Stories may grow wings they may swim. They are bound only by the limits of your imagination. Employing digressions means that you are telling with a purpose, not simply entertaining for entertainments sake.

“Dooni dooni kononi bè nyaga da.”


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