Gassire and the Lute that Sang

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(Djerma, Soninke/Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal)

In early times, Wagadu faced north and was called Dierra. The last king was Nganamba Fasa, and his strength grew as he fought the Burdama and Boroma. But now he was old and his heroes were old. His son was Gassire, a mythic hero. Nganamba grew so old that Wagadu was lost. But he did not die, and a jackal therefore gnawed at Gassire's heart. He daily watched for his father's death. He fought as a hero against the Burdama and Boroma. He heard his deeds praised, but he was miserable as he listened to the strains of Nganamba's breathing: Gassire wanted his father's sword and shield, and his longing grew. Then a wise man told Gassire that his father would die but Gassire would not get his sword and shield. Others would inherit those; Gassire would get a lute, and that lute would cause the loss of Wagadu. Gassire called the wise man a liar. The next day, he did battle with the Burdama alone, telling the other heroes to remain behind. His sword was like a sickle, and the enemy feared him, and fled. The other heroes gathered the spears of the vanquished Burdama, and sang Gassire's praise; never before had Wagadu won so many spears. Women bathed him, men sang his praise. He went to the fields and heard the partridges. A partridge told of its battle with a snake. All will die, it sang, but the Dausi, the song of its battles, would not die, it would outlive all kings and heroes. Gassire went back to the wise old man: Do men also know the Dausi, and can the Dausi outlive life and death? The old man said, You are hastening to your end. And since you cannot be a king you shall be a bard. Because Gassire cannot be the second of the first rank (i.e., the king), he shall be the first of the second rank. And Wagadu will be lost because of it. Gassire had a smith make him a lute. The smith said he would make the lute but the lute would not sing. Gassire told the smith to do his work and “the rest is my affair.” When Gassire struck the lute, it would not sing. The smith said that Gassire had to give the piece of wood a heart, “Carry it into battle, let the wood absorb blood, your pain must be its pain, your fame its fame.” The wood must be penetrated by and be a part of Gassire's people. But, he said, Wagadu will be lost because of it. Gassire took his eight sons into battle. His eldest son was killed, and as Gassire carried his body back the blood of the youth dropped on the lute that Gassire also carried on his back. Still, the lute did not sing. He rode into battle again, for seven days, each day carrying back one of his dead sons, and the blood dropped on the lute, blood flowed everywhere, the women wailed, the men were angry, the old wise man said that Wagadu would be lost for the first time. With his last son, Gassire went into the desert. Many heroes rode with him. Deep in the desert, at night, a restive Gassire heard a voice: the lute was singing the Dausi. When it sang the Dausi the first time, King Nganamba died, Gassire's rage melted, and Wagadu for the first time disappeared. See: page 280.


Subjects: Religion.

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