Classically speaking, storytelling is a distinctly oral tradition: the passage of a narrative from one person to another via speaking out loud. This practice appears across the globe, apparently universal in its reach. Some have even argued that it is an evolutionary artifact.
Yet as you dig deeper into the many cultures and communities that practice oral storytelling, you will discover that, beyond its ubiquity and universality, there are many nuances and variations in this practice, not least from a physical aural perspective. These fascinating differences showcase the creative ways human beings have over the millennia interpreted & manipulated sound for their own use. Whether it is for entertainment (such as the Japanese tradition of rakugo), for social action (such as the traditionally urban African-American tradition of slam poetry), or simply for pleasure (such as the Caribbean tradition of the calypsonian), oral storytelling is so much more than the stories themselves — the ways in which the storytellers perform their craft is, itself, a story waiting to be told.
Note: This is just a few examples of oral storytelling traditions around the world. To find out more about storytelling cultures, check out this article here.
Poetry at the Pub: The Oral Tradition of Seanachie
Sometimes spelled as seanchaí or seanchaidh, the seanachie is the name for a traditional Gaelic storyteller. Originally, these storytellers were ancient Celtic bards, who memorized and performed various pieces of poetry and song to the public. Given that there was little-written history during those times, the bards were often considered the keepers of history, as they are the only ones who ‘remember.’ Over time, these bards became the seanachie, who now specialized in telling folk stories rather than singing or reciting poetry.
Just like the traveling bard, the seanachie was often a nomad — though some were lucky enough to be given a higher social stature as a clan’s unofficial historian — who carried his stories with him as he went from the countryside to the city, spreading the tales of the past to future generations. Thus the responsibility of preserving culture, history, and tradition rests upon an individual whose whereabouts are often a mystery.
The Rhythms of Society: The Oral Tradition of Slam Poetry
Slam poetry is a distinctly urban American phenomenon born out of the frustrations individuals and communities — in particular, those disenfranchised and marginalized — had with society. Distinct from other forms of poetry performance, slam poetry emphasized its vision of social progress, utilizing unique aural elements such as cadence and rhythm. Many have misunderstood slam poetry’s unique style as “aggressive,” when in fact these elements are there to illicit emotion and action from its audience, in the hopes of ‘waking’ them up to the inequalities around them and, therefore, enacting change.
The very first slam poetry event was held in Chicago in 1984 by a construction worker named Marc Smith. Disillusioned by the elitism of literary circles, Smith decided to create an open & public format whereby storytellers come up and perform their poem in front of an audience, who will then judge their performance against other storytellers. This ‘competitive’ format allows the audience to be continuously reinvigorated in their interest and attention, thereby ensuring that the poem — and its message — stays relevant.
Breathing in the Stories of the Earth: The Oral Tradition of Native American Storytelling
Native Americans consider the practice of storytelling as an inherently spiritual one, whereby the living communicates with Nature and the earth as well as the many who have died beforehand. It is a cyclical system that teaches future generations the lessons learned — hard or otherwise — by past generations. It is because of this intimate understanding of the value in storytelling that the oral practice of it is still highly revered in modern-day Native American communities.
Various Native American tribe have their own unique approach to oral storytelling, but in general, most stories serve various moral functions, ranging from ‘healing’ stories to ‘survival’ stories — all of which help the community grow and thrive against the world’s challenges.
The Historian Troubadour: The Oral Tradition of Griot
The West African tradition of the griot is not dissimilar to that of the Celtic seanachie; it too involves history and storytelling. However, unlike the seanachie — and much more like the seanachie’s predecessor, the bard — the griot is also an accomplished musician and singer. Because of their particular focus on the unique aural qualities of West African songs, the griot is often called the “praise-singer.”
To become a griot is to be a member of a revered group of individuals tasked with the responsibility of remembering and upholding tradition and history. In fact, many wealthy families employ a griot to accompany various cultural ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals. These days, griots consider themselves as the living “memory” of West African culture, though some modern-day griots have also employed their particular skill as a storyteller to push for social changes in their respective societies.
Constrained Comedy: The Oral Tradition of Rakugo
Rakugo — which literally translates as “falling words” — is the little-known Japanese oral tradition of ‘sit-down comedy.’ Historically speaking, rakugo grew out of an effort by Buddhist monks to make their sermons more engaging to its audience, often by introducing humor into their speech. Over time, the humor element became the predominant focus of the practice, which is always performed by one performer as they are sitting down on a traditional Japanese pillow called a zabuton; in fact, the performer cannot get up from their zabuton during the entirety of their performance.
Similar to other Japanese performance traditions such as kabuki, practitioners of rakugo must go through an apprenticeship, sometimes even acquiring stage names from their masters. In the highly structured and stylized world of Japanese performance culture, rakugo’s distinct comedic flair is a breathe of fresh air, even if the performer might feel a bit numb in the knees afterward.
Singing & Storytelling to the Music of Calypso: The Oral Tradition of Calypso
A direct descendant from the West African griot, the Caribbean calypsonian is a troubadour who specialized in singing calypso, a particular Afro-Caribbean style of music. As African slaves were brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade of the 17th-century, their distinctive brand of musical tradition was also carried over.
Early calypso music was in French Creole, but as Anglicization swept through the islands, calypso — especially in Trinidad — eventually mixed English words with the existing French Creole vocabulary, creating a distinct style of musical storytelling. Genuine calypsonians would always write their own music and come up with their own personas to match the style of their songs & performance.