“Four times Wagadu rose. A great city, gleaming in the light of day. Four times Wagadu fell. And disappeared from human sight. Once through vanity. Once through dishonesty. Once through greed. Once through discord.”
The story of Wagadu is one of the most haunting, most enchanting pieces of oral literature I have ever encountered. It is a West African epic by the Soninke people, and tells about the early history of the place we know today as Ghana.
Sadly, no full English version of the epic exists today. Several different books present several different pieces of it, collected from the oral tradition. As suggested by the opening lines above, the full story would consist of four parts, each telling the rise and fall of one aspect of Wagadu (named Dierra, Agada, Ganna and Silla, respectively).
The most complete part of the story survived known as "Gassire's Lute" (collected by Leo Frobenius at the beginning of the 20th century). Other parts can be found in Oral Epics of Africa, and Courlander's A Treasury of African Folklore.
The hero of Gassire's Lute is Gassire, the son of the king of the first Wagadu. Not being able to wait until his father dies to take the throne, he decides to become a griot instead - claiming that rather than being "second among the first" (the highest social class) he'll be "first among the second" (the keepers of the lore). In the end it is his blind vanity that brings down Dierra.
All of it, really. The rolling eloquence of the language, the haunting chorus, the mysterious opening lines (see above), and the gripping story of how Gassire slowly realizes he got way more than he bargained for when he decided to pursue the destiny of a storyteller. The blacksmith creates a lute for him, but the lute won't sing until it becomes part of Gassire's life and family - through drinking in their blood. Gassire starts taking the lute to battle with him every day, willing to endanger and sacrifice all of his sons to achieve his goal...
This story packs a punch. I wish I could have found a more complete version of the rest of the epic.