The epic world of Djibril Tamsir Niane (1932-2021)

One of Guinea’s foremost scholars passed away in March of this year at the age of 89 from COVID-19. Djibril Tamsir Niane was known for his work on the UNESCO General History of Africa volume that covered the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, for his plays and short stories, and for bringing the Epic of Soundjata to the attention of a worldwide audience. He was deeply influential in the field of Mande studies, and left a legacy to current and future researchers that includes digital resources.

The African Literature Association convened an online memorial that took place on Saturday, May 8th, that can be found here.  Charlotte Bednarski, a current graduate student in Yale’s African Studies program, interviewed emeritus Professor David C. Conrad from SUNY-Oswego here, and the interview contains substantial reflection on Niane’s fundamental role in working on the Soundjata epic.  Prof. Conrad also wrote an article detailing how an archive of Niane’s audio reels made its way to Yale for preservation and access.  A finding aid for this archive may be found here, and requests for access to the digitized audio materials will be considered.

He also grouped together lyrics of some songs sung by griots to the praises of Sékou Touré in the early days of Guinea’s independence from France.  The lyrics he collected are given variously in Malinke, Susu, French, English, and Fula in a 1960 article by Niane published in Présence Africaine.  One such song by the griot Diély Mamadou Kandé includes the words:

But to fight to snatch total Independence

That is not given to all

And let us pay tribute to the rulers of Guinea

Hail to the Government of Guinea

Stop playing Guitarist

My thoughts fly away

And I think and I become sad

What makes me sad

Is that I think of the Dead

Of those who died in the struggle for Independence

Alas, they will not have seen the fine days of Independence

In his contribution to the UNESCO work, Niane writes of the development of the constitution of Mali, at a much earlier era in the process of statebuilding:

  Tradition attributes to Sundiata the codification of the social and political norms that still in part govern Mande peoples.  He was given many names: Simbon Salaba (master hunter, whose head commands reverence), Mari Diata (Lord lion), and, in Soninke, Maghan Sundiata (King Sundiata).  According to tradition, it was on a large plain near Kangaba, at Kurukanfuga, that the Gbara or great assembly took place, which was in fact that constituent assembly of the Mandenka clans.             

Niane will be remembered for many reasons, including the breadth of his analysis of the longevity of Mande culture.


African Literature Association. “Remembering DT Niane.” Accessed May 8, 2021.

Afrofiles. “The Epic of Sundiata.” Accessed May 1, 2021.

Conrad, David C. “Bold Research During Troubled Times in Guinea: the Story of the Djibril Tamsir Niane Tape Archive.” History in Africa, vol. 37, 2010, pp. 355–378. JSTOR, Accessed May 19, 2021.

Ki-Zerbo, J. and Niane, Djibril Tamsir, ed. General History of Africa, vol. 4. Africa from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. Abridged edition. p. 56.

Niane, Djibril Tamsir. “Some Revolutionary Songs of
Guinea”, Présence Africaine, vol. 29, 1960, pp. 101-115.

_______________. Soundjata; ou, L’épopée mandingue. Paris, Présence africaine, 1960.

Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives. “Guide to the Djibril Tamsir Niane Audiorecordings Documenting Guinean Oral Traditions, MS 1935.” Accessed May 19, 2021.

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