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‘What I Hear, I Keep’ honors oral storytelling traditions

“What I Hear I Keep: Stories from Oakland's Griots” is an interactive art installation by Walter Hood with audio design by Holly Alonso, currently on display at Peralta House Museum of History & Community, 2465 34th Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. The museum is located in the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park.

Horse scultpure: What I hear, I Keep: Stories from Oakland's Griots
Photo by Chris Hambrick

Chris Hambrick, Marketing Director of Hacienda Peralta, was one of the many local community members involved with installing the exhibit.

“I worked on the fabrication as one of the many hands. The horse is constructed around a wooden armature, we were fortunate enough to have Walter Hood come up with the concept and come out with his team, and fabricate the horse structure,” said Hambrick.

Conceptually, the exhibit integrates the West African tradition of griots with the experience of African American community members in Oakland today.

A griot or djéli is a West African storyteller and keeper of oral histories. In many ways equivalent to medieval English and Gaelic bards, griots mastered musical storytelling and poetry, and were frequently associated with royal personages, but in the West African tradition, these storytellers had greater power. They were frequently royal advisors. Their storytelling celebrated the ancestors and encapsulated current events. Unlike the European bard, griots did not limit their histories to those of royal families and dignitaries. Villages in Mali often had their own griots, responsible for telling the stories of the common mand. The Oakland exhibit picks up on and modernizes this concept with audio interviews that tell the stories of local community members.

“Essentially, this is an audio and art exhibit. It includes interviews. The interviews were recorded by StoryCorps, and mixed down by the art director, Holly Alonso so that it all flows. ” said Hambrick

StoryCorps is a national oral history project that celebrated its tenth anniversary last October. It has recorded more than 50,000 oral interviews, which are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and are often aired as segments on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Installed in February 2014, the exhibit will continue for a full year, closing in February 2014. It is open for public viewing Wednesday through Saturday, 2:30pm to 5:30pm weekly.

The $5 admission is waived for Fruitvale residents.