What is a Griot? The Inspiration Behind Standing on Their Shoulders

Over the past year, the Standing on Their Shoulders project has attempted to encourage young griots in our communities.

Deriving from West African traditions, the griot, or “jeli” profession involves several responsibilities. Griots serve the role of public historians and storytellers, yet there is no word in a Western vocabulary that could properly speak to their realm of tasks:

“A traditional griot could do everything from recounting history to composing music, to teaching students, to acting as diplomats. They are genealogists, historians, spokespeople, ambassadors, musicians, teachers, warriors, interpreters, praise-singers, masters of ceremonies, advisors, and more. Not every griot does all of these things, but these are all examples of functions the griot profession embodies.”[i]

Though the traditional role of the griot in some uses of the word may be strictly defined, and unique to certain regions, part of the approach of Standing on Their Shoulders is recognizing that certain principles which undergird griot-ship, such as orality, storytelling, community empowerment through self-knowledge, are rather widespread, and have evolved in the diaspora in particular ways. It is these underlying connections that we attempted to draw on for Standing on Their Shoulders.

A classic example of a story that has been passed down through griot traditions (often through song), is Sundiata, an epic of 14th century Mali.[ii] The basic structure of the story is quite similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, although Shakespeare’s play was conceived nearly three centuries after Sundiata. Interestingly, Hamlet is often identified as the basis for Disney’s Lion King, while “Sundiata” literally translates to “the lion king”.[iii]

Our effort to engage our communities’ griots is also inspired by the principle of “Sankofa”: the shortened version of an Akan principle symbolized by the goose reaching backwards.[iv] The rough translation of the proverb is “it is not taboo to go back and fetch that which you have left behind”. More simply: “go back and fetch it!”. This is the methodological principle used in the archival work of Dr. Dorothy Williams (see her thesis on black periodicals).[v] Though the Sankofa principle is mostly associated with back to Africa movements, the “Standing on their Shoulders” project applies the Sankofa principle to our work in a localized sense.

Article by Kai Thomas

Image by Kathleen Atkins Wilson


[i]  https://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/GriotInstitute/What%20is%20a%20Griot.pdf

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM8hx0ooQMY

[iii] http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED386732

[iv] http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/sank.htm

[v] http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol2/002/NR25286.PDF

Standing on Their Shoulders – Video Exhibit at CEREV Concordia

Standing on Their Shoulders has been passing on the Black history of Little Burgundy through workshops, walking tours, discussion groups, and through the creation of 20 short films by Black youth. These youth used their talents and their commitment to Black heritage to create 20 outstanding creative works, which we are proud to share with everyone at a very special exhibit this March.

The BCRC team are pleased to announce the Standing on Their Shoulders video series will be exhibited at CEREV. CEREV (Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence), operating out of Concordia University, is a trusted partner of the BCRC. It is a centre for curation and expression, where people can use multimedia tools and knowledge to address and articulate social suffering.

We are thankful to CEREV for featuring the videos in their wonderful space from March 7th to March 16th. The daytime exhibit is free and everyone is welcome.

Standing on Their Shoulders at CEREV
March 7 – March 16
Weekdays 10:30A.M. to 4:30 P.M.
Concordia University Downtown Campus
J.W. McConnell Building
1455 Maisonneuve O., Room LB-671 (6th Floor)

Standing on Their Shoulders – Video Project Launch

The Standing on Their Shoulders team and project participants are ready to launch the final video project! The 20 videos, dedicated to the Black, English-speaking history of Little Burgundy, will be released to the public this Black History Month, 2016.


This is a free event, and it is open to the public. Come and celebrate the hard work our youth put into artistic expression and preserving history.


February 21st, 2016 at 3 P.M.

Georges Vanier Cultural Centre

2450 rue Workman

Community Event Celebrating Little Burgundy on Film

“Little Burgundy on the Big Screen”

The Standing on Their Shoulders project is dedicated to passing on Little Burgundy’s history through storytelling. Little Burgundy has a deep tradition of film-making that has come before our project. These older films, documentaries, and animations have provided invaluable, insight, and food for thought and spirit. With much difficulty, we have selected three masterpieces, and we invite you to come out and enjoy them with friends old and new, all the while supporting the community’s heritage; 

1) Âme Noire–directed by Martine Chartrand. An animated short dives into the heart of Black culture with an exhilarating trip through history. Watch as a young boy traces his roots through the stories his grandmother shares with him about the events that shaped their cultural heritage. -NFB

2) Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar—directed by Sylvia Sweeney. The legacy of jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson is chronicled in this riveting documentary spanning five decades of Peterson’s unforgettable music. Considered to have been one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists, Peterson released more than 200 recordings and won eight Grammy Awards. Music In the Key of Oscar traces the history of Peterson’s roots from his early days as Montreal’s teenage boogie-woogie sensation through his meteoric rise to international celebrity. -NFB

3) Sitting In Limbo—directed by John N. Smith, starring Pat Dillon Moore, Fabian Gibbs and William R. Cunningham. Set to the reggae music of Jimmy Cliff, this feature drama is the bittersweet love story of  Pat and Fabian, 2 teenagers with roots in the Caribbean living in Montreal. Full of warmth and humour, this film follows the couple and their friends as they cope with school, jobs, slum landlords and an unexpected pregnancy.  -NFB  


This event will be held at 540 Richmond St., Montreal, QC, H3J 1V3 from 4:00 p.m to 9 p.m. on November 11, 2015.



Standing on Their Shoulders Supports NCC’s Picnic 2015


This past July 25th 2015, the organizing committee of the NCC/Royal Arthur Reunion held their 5th annual picnic in Angrignon Park. As early as 7:00 a.m., volunteers, organizing members and the Standing on Their Shoulders team were preparing for the crowd of hundreds.

The purpose of this annual reunion picnic, is, and has been, to reunite all who had attended Royal Arthur School and the Negro Community Center in Little Burgundy.  This year was special as the NCC is now just a memory, an empty lot; the building stands no more…


Standing on Their Shoulders had the very exciting opportunity to set up a story-telling tent, where the picnic goers shared their stories with our researcher, Kai Thomas. We were fortunate to have so many people share their memories about Little Burgundy. The tent served as a means to collect and corroborate facts for our youth videos yet it was also a place for people to reminisce. There were many emotional moments. It was great to see people laughing and some even shed a tear. Unfortunately, time being short, and stories plentiful, we did not have the opportunity to speak with as many people as we had hoped. It was wonderful to see the interest, as they waited patiently for their turn to speak with Kai.


The space in Angrignon Park that was allocated to this event filled up by early afternoon. Food was in abundance, music played, people danced, and smiles were everywhere…Joy filled the air. The atmosphere was simply amazing! The Standing on Their Shoulders team was grateful for the opportunity to witness such an outpouring of love and appreciation of a community that has grown together and is ‘Standing Strong in Spirit’.
A special thanks to our volunteers and to all those who supported the picnic by purchasing our t-shirts, which will help us defray unexpected costs and keep the machinery going.



Photo Credit: Ozgur Mulazimoglu

Interview with Skipper Dean

Standing on Their Shoulders animators Pharaoh and Jennifer sat down with performer Skipper Dean in his home to talk about music, performing, and growing up in Little Burgundy.

Seated in front of his immense record collection, he spoke to us with a soft and collected voice that could only belong to a soul-singer.Yet before he was a dynamite rhinestone-clad performer, touring the world and singing with other legends, he was a boy from Little Burgundy.

“It was a village” he says, recalling how everyone knew each other. “If I did something wrong down on Mountain Street, by the time I got down to Canning Street”, he recalls, “People poked their heads out saying ‘Just wait till you get home!’”.

From encountering famous musicians looking for directions to local clubs, to sneaking backstage to meet The Vibrations and Patti Labelle, his stories of Little Burgundy are full of fond memories, getting into trouble, and most importantly, full of music.

Braving the Cold to Learn and Explore!

On March 20th, 2015, the Standing on Their Shoulders animators joined the enthusiastic youth from James Lyng High School’s 10th grade history and French classes on their walking tour of Little Burgundy. The walking tour was a conclusion of a week-long series on the History of Little Burgundy where the students were taught about the historic landmarks, and watched the “Burgundy Jazz” web documentary, written and directed by David Eng. A particular element of this project was that the youth were given images of old pictures and asked to reproduce them (the images) as they stand today.


All the sites were amazing and very educational, but the piece-de-resistance was when the youth stopped at Tyndale St-Georges Community center for lunch. After an amazing lunch provided by Boom J’s, Dr. Dorothy Williams, Ethel Bruneau, & Skipper Dean were invited to answer questions the youth had prepared for them. The students were excited at the chance to meet celebrities who appeared in the documentary series and the opportunity to interact with them would surely be treasured memories for years to com


“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Montreal

In the mid 1800’s, before Little Burgundy was a neighbourhood, the highest concentration of Montreal’s black population resided in a related geographic zone called St. Antoine ward. One of those residents was Shadrach Minkins: fugitive slave, restaurant owner, barber, father, proud community member. After his exciting escapes from Norfolk, Virginia, and then Boston, Massachusetts, Minkins settled in Montreal in 1851, likely hiding away on trains laden with cotton and other slave-trade products.

He had emancipated himself from slavery in Norfolk, and after a short time in Boston, was captured as one of the early victims of the Fugitive Slave act of 1850. During his trial, an organized crowd of black Bostonians forced their way into court and spirited Shadrach away.

Upon arrival in Montreal Shadrach creatively found ways to survive and thrive, especially with the aid of abolitionist communities and networks. He became a father, entrepreneur, and an active community member until his passing in 1875. During the mid 1850s, Minkins opened a restaurant in downtown Montreal, called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, named after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel. However, his longest-standing business was a barbershop on the corner of Mountain and St-Antoine–the very same corner where Rockhead’s Paradise was established some 70 years later. Barbershops in that time were not the black barbershops we know today–clientele would have been predominantly if not exclusively white men, and as such, the barbershop was likely a reminder of the strict occupational structure that by and large restricted black folks to the lower echelons of society. Despite such realities, the abilities of figures such as Shadrach to navigate these social and geographic spaces give testimony to the creative brilliance and resilience of the human spirit.  ‪#‎BlackHistoryMTL‬‪#‎IamBurgundy‬

Read more about Shadrach Minkin’s story in Gary Collison’s book “Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen”: http://www.amazon.com/Shadrach-Minkins-Fugitiv…/…/0674802993



At a recent workshop at Tyndale, the Standing on Their Shoulders team sat down with a dozen Tyndale youth, documentary filmmaker Sacha Obas and jazz legend Norman Marshall Villeneuve. The mission: to talk about all things jazz in Burgundy!




Mr. Villeneuve told us all about the glory days of Rockhead’s Paradise, sharing the stage with other jazz greats, and how important music was for many young people growing up in Burgundy. He started playing drums when he was only 12 years old! We were also treated to a demonstration of Mr. Villeneuve’s incredible skill.


To inspire the youth on their upcoming film project, Sacha shared some words of wisdom on filmmaking. He showed a short documentary from New York City and gave pointers on how to choose music for a film, how to craft a story from interviews, and how to choose what questions to ask!


We all left feeling very inspired!


A big thank you to Louise & Norman Villeneuve, and Sacha Obas for sharing their expertise with the youth!