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Photo courtesy of Charlotte Blake Alston

Charlotte Blake Alston will be part of the local Harlem and Beyond program.

Human history began with the telling of stories. It's something scholars refer to as oral interpretation -- a recounting in words and music of where one's ancestors came from and what they have done.

Master storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston of Philadelphia will demonstrate that tradition as part of the local Harlem and Beyond program Tuesday evening at Beale Memorial Library.

In an exchange of emails, Alston explained how she became a professional storyteller, musician and singer after devoting nearly 20 years as an educator.

"I learned about the West African oral tradition while I was still teaching," she said. "Storytelling was one of many tools I incorporated to engage children, and to bring history and literature alive."

During that time she became interested in tracing the origins of folktales she read about in children's literature.

"Most were stories translated out of their languages into English by western folklorists or missionaries," she said. "I became curious to see if I could find earlier recorded versions of those tales and that's when my journey began."

So in 1988 she made her first trip to Senegal, where she found that storytellers were still performing the ancient tales.

"One evening while dining al fresco at a restaurant by the sea in Dakar, a young man sat down on a low cushion and began singing and playing an instrument with a heavenly, harp-like sound," she said. "It was my introduction to the kora and its historic role in the recounting of history. We were mesmerized. It was then that I began to (do) research and learn more about the tradition of the griot."

In West African countries, a griot (pronounced gree-oh) is a name for a person whose job it is to tell about and maintain a people's history.

The kora, one of several instruments Alston plays, has with 21 strings.

"My primary instrument is my voice," she said, adding that any musical instruments she brings to a concert depends upon her mode of travel.

"If I fly I generally carry my kora (and) in that instance, I pray a lot," she said. "Baggage handlers, non-temperature controlled cargo holds and large, delicate, hand-made instruments do not always make for a healthy combination."

Alston has no idea how many stories she has in her repertoire. She doesn't read from a script either.

"In terms of memorization, I know the stories, I have lived with most of them for a long time," she said. "That means I may not necessarily tell them exactly the same way each time. I do have to memorize if I've written a story in rhyme and verse."

Harlem and Beyond coordinator Brenda Scobey said hosting Alston's appearance here is a high honor. She holds two honorary doctorates and received the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Association.

Alston has given performances in such diverse places as the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kimmel Center in her hometown of Philadelphia, the Women of the Word Festival in Cape Town, South Africa, in prisons and detention centers, and a refugee camp in northern Senegal.

The event is sponsored by the Bakersfield African American Read-In Committee, Harlem and Beyond Planning Committee, and Kern County Library.