It should come as no surprise that I love storytelling. It’s a supremely important part of the human experience that drives creativity, imagination, cultural knowledge and traditions, and helps to make sense of the world around us. Every culture around the world has its own set of traditions, from oral storytelling to dance and visual artwork. Even the elements within the stories are emphasized and communicated in a myriad of ways, beyond the method of transference itself. The more I study these different practices, the more inspiration I find for my own storytelling style…I hope you will find them inspiring as well!
Here are some examples of the diverse storytelling traditions around the world:
The oldest form of classical dance in India, and portrays spiritual themes and mythical legends from Hindu texts. While it was once kept exclusive to the Hindu temples, it has since spread to wider audiences and incorporated more modern, non-religious themes. During the years of British colonialism, Bharatanatyam was banned, but Indian communities rebelled against the restriction and kept it alive in spite of the discrimination against the temple dancers. It then became an element of cultural revival during the post-colonial Indian Independence movements in the early 20th centuries, and re-entered the public storytelling domain. The style of storytelling is typically performed by a solo dancer, accompanied by traditional music, and features complex forms of footwork and sign language, typically with the upper body remaining still.
Chinese Shadow Plays
Considered by UNESCO to be an example of intangible cultural heritage, Chinese puppetry has been a popular form of non-verbal storytelling since the Tang and Song dynasties. This art features paper and leather sculptures of people and animals, which would be displayed behind a thin, back-lit screen. The resulting silhouettes were then manipulated to tell stories of morality, social traditions and values, and just simple entertainment, particularly at religious rituals and special gatherings. A typical performance troupe would consist of five people, the puppeteers and musicians, who would train to become masters of the intricate puppetwork and song that were passed down from master to pupil for generations.
Rakugo is simple in the way it is presented, but complex and engaging in the delivery itself. This Japanese form of oral storytelling consists of a single speaker telling long and elaborate tales, usually comical, with simple gestures designed to invoke hilarity but never moving from a seated position. Dialogue between multiple characters is common, with the speaker adopting each persona with varying vocal inflections and posturing of the head and face. A key part of every rakugo performance is the narrative stunt, or punchline, at the end of the dialogue. It was originally adopted by Buddhist monks to make their sermons more entertaining and would later be reserved for nobility seeking entertainment. Today, it is a dynamic storytelling genre enjoyed by all.
Delivered in colloquial Arabic dialects, Zajal is a traditional form of spoken poetry matched to repeated stanzas of music (a chorus), that would vary in style from region to region. It originated in the 12th century but rose in popularity during the 19th century, with the most commonly-performed style being a type of dueling, debate genre of poetry between two speakers (early predecessor of the rap battle?). Lebanese Zajal is the most well-known subgenre today and the most skilled practitioners can enjoy a level of recognition and fame for their eloquence and quick wit.
Hula is a form of Polynesian oral storytelling through dance, chants, and the occasional instrumental accompaniment (but only in more modern forms). While there are many related forms of this art, hula is specific to the Hawaiian Islands. An important element of hula is the association of the movements to the spoken verses and chants as a form of oral storytelling– if you separate the dance from the words, it loses its meaning completely. Hula traditions are passed down from generation to generation, and tell tales of ancient beliefs, legends, history, and important knowledge.
This style of musical rhyme originated in Trinidad and Tobago as early as the 17th Century, developed by African slaves brought to harvest sugarcane in the Caribbean who needed a way to communicate with eachother. It also became a way to mock the slavemasters and, eventually, continued to evolve as a vehicle for sharing news and speaking out against oppression and exploitation. It told the tales of the common folk and pushed the boundaries of free speech by artfully weaving information and critique within the lyrics.
Cunto is a form of Italian traditional storytelling, characterised by an improvisational style and specific breathing pattern that allows the performer to deliver lines with emphasis and rhythm. It takes inspiration from the style of ancient Greek chorus and can be delivered for hours on end, capturing a crowd’s emotions with a powerful voice alone. Cunto stories historically focused on the exploits and triumphs of knights and dramatic adventures, though today the art has been adapted to tell stories of the cities, the people who inhabit it, and the dramatic rise and fall of life itself.