Professor publishes 'richer' version of African epic

imageFor the past 10 years, SUNY Oswego history Professor David C. Conrad has been working to bring to print “one of the biggest finds of my research in Africa”—the fullest recorded version of a great medieval oral epic from West Africa.

While the publication of the fully annotated scholarly edition of “Sunjata” remains years away, Conrad said, Hackett Publishing Co. has just published his abbreviated version for use in college classrooms.

Conrad called the Sunjata epic “the Iliad and the Odyssey of sub-Saharan Africa.” It is the story of a Mande hero, Sunjata, who liberates his people from a sorcerer and establishes the empire of Mali, an actual civilization that flourished from the mid-13th to the early 15th centuries.

The longest previously printed version was just over 3,000 lines, while the version that Conrad taped in a performance by Djanka Tassey Conde in 1994 amounted to nearly 17,000 lines. It took Tassey Conde a total of seven days to narrate the text, Conrad said. In the book’s foreword, he calls it is “the single most comprehensive, colorful, dramatic version available.”

Tassey Conde came from a long line of griots, or bards, who have passed the narrative down through the generations. Conrad met him during a year he spent as a Fulbright senior researcher in Mali and northeastern Guinea.

He traveled to Tassey Conde’s village of Fadama in Guinea by dugout canoe, and the Conde family came to accept him as an honorary member, he said.

The Conde version of the Sunjata epic “turned out to be one of the biggest finds of my research in Africa,” Conrad said. “Researchers dream of finding something like this. It was like a bonanza for me.”

The new book excerpts less than a third of Tassey Conde’s Sunjata narrative, but Conrad said that Hackett Publishing Co. believes it fills a need for a version that is both approachable and inexpensive enough for classroom use and representative of the poetic performance values of the Mande bards who have recounted the epic through the ages.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a professor of classics at Temple University, said that the new book “communicates a richer, more complex, and more compelling version of the Sunjata story” and “is much more worthy to be placed among the great epics of world literature” than any version previously available in print.

Conrad began collecting narratives in the Mande oral tradition in 1975 and is president of the international Mande Studies Association. He has published several scholarly books on West African culture and tradition.

“Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples” consists of 195 pages of the narrative itself as recorded, transcribed, translated and excerpted by Conrad plus 48 pages of introductory materials. It is priced at $9.95.

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(Posted: Oct 06, 2004)