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 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.

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


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!


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