Oral tradition comprises the specialized verbal art forms—proverbs, riddles, chants, lyric poetry, tales, myths, legends, and epics—through which African societies have ensured cultural continuity. It is the repository of a community's core values, philosophies, mysteries, rituals, and, most importantly, memory. It survives by virtue of transmission from one generation to another by word of mouth. Performance is its most important distinguishing feature. It exists only in its moment of actuation, when performer and audience come together in a quasi-spiritual engagement. The performer draws his or her materials from the collective ancestral lore familiar to the audience; distinctiveness comes with innovation and inventiveness, delivery, and command of language.
Ruth Finnegan sparked the most significant controversy on the status of oral tradition when she concluded, in her influential Oral Literature in Africa (1970), that Africa had no epic. Isidore Okepwho's The Epic in Africa (1979) and Myth in Africa (1983) became crucial to the institutional and conceptual legitimization of those genres against the backdrop of the Finnegan controversy. Allied to the development of a robust critical apparatus on African oral tradition was the process of recording the various oral genres—folktales, proverbs, riddles, myths, praise poetry, epics, and sagas—for posterity. Birago Diop's (1906–1989) Les contes d'Amadou Koumba (1947; Tales of Amadou Koumba) and Les nouveaux contes d'Amadou Koumba (1958; New tales of Amadou Koumba) and Bernard Dadié's (b. 1916) Le pagne noir (1955; The black cloth) have become classics of the folktale genre. The Sundiata, Mwindo, Ibonia epics and the Ozzidi saga are also extant in significant textual versions.
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