Message from the Dean: RCAH Griots

April 6, 2016

By Stephen Esquith, Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

This is the twentieth “Dean’s Message” that I have written since RCAH opened its doors in fall 2007. The first focused on our mission: “to weave together the passion, imagination, humor, and candor of the arts and humanities to promote individual wellbeing and the common good.” And since then, in one way or another, I’ve tried to highlight those things that our faculty, students, and staff have done in its pursuit. 

This year we have had one of the busiest times of our decade-long life. In addition to the initiatives I described in the fall and the work that continues to flow out of our regular classes, we have had a rich array of guests and performances. In other words, there has been plenty of grist for this mill.

So, why has it taken until the end of March for this “Message” to appear? The answer, I’m afraid, is that these are hard times.

We are more aware of institutional and symbolic violence in our own communities at the same time that we recognize that the existence of violence throughout the world affects and implicates us in many ways. “Flint” has become a metaphor for the violence of poverty and racism in many communities throughout the country.  The toll taken on civilian populations worldwide is no less appalling outside civil war zones than it is inside them. 60 million people, mostly women and children, are now refugees or otherwise involuntarily displaced from their homes – the largest number since World War II.

Many RCAH faculty, students, and staff are addressing these issues, at home and abroad. It is one of the important ways that we think of the arts and humanities for the common good. One project that several faculty and students have been involved in for some time is our peace education program at the Ciwara School in Mali, a country that has been struggling with extreme poverty and civil war for many years.

As I was returning by plane from Mali in early March, I found myself sitting next to singer Sekouba Bambino. I was able to talk with him about the challenges he faces as an artist working in Mali under the current “state of emergency” that has been in place since the terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in the capital Bamako on November 11, 2015.

Sekouba was one of the 170 people taken hostage in that attack that left 21 dead, and then was instrumental in helping the authorities capture some of the perpetrators. He has more than just thought about the dangers Malian artists who are among the country’s most important public intellectuals face today. Their courage and commitment to their art as part of the peace building process has been something many have admired. To listen to and see the importance of Malian music in particular during the recent crisis in Mali, see “Mali in Crisis: The Power of Music,” produced by Oxfam and the Sahel Calling Project (here and below). They too think of the arts and humanities in terms of their contribution to individual wellbeing and the common good.

Let me take this comparison one step further. Music is an essential part of Malian culture, and musicians like Sekouba are modern griots who are part of the conscience of the people. The griot tradition, similar to the prophetic tradition in Christianity and Judaism, functions to remind the people of their common commitments and great achievements. Even more than ancient prophets, griots mediate conflicts so that they do not escalate into violence.

This week’s Wednesday Night Live “PeaceJam Jam” offers us an opportunity to understand what it would mean to be an RCAH griot in difficult times. Through music and storytelling we will hear how students, community leaders, and ordinary citizens have struggled successfully against violence.