Your voice has to reflect what you are trying to say in a story,” says Godfrey Duncan to a roomful of enthusiastic storytellers. “It has to create tension, drama. You talk in a monotone and you’re going to put your listeners to sleep,” he says, amid laughter.
The London based storyteller was at the British Council on Friday to conduct a workshop on storytelling. After a three-hour long session and several photo ops with enthusiastic fans, Duncan still doesn’t look tired. With blue ‘earplugs’ in place of earrings, his gold teeth glinting and chunky bracelets clinking, he settles down into a comfy chair and tells us the story of how he got into the business of telling stories.
“I was a poet,” he begins in his deep, baritone voice. “I slowly shifted to writing songs. But one day, I saw a storyteller from Guyana, where I was born. It was then that I realised that storytelling was freedom — freedom from paper. It was just, freedom.”
He relates it just like he is telling a story and we have to shake ourself up a little bit to ask him about his style of traditional storytelling. “The old traditional storytelling appealed to me because there was such a huge body of work. It has already been in existence for a very long time as an art form, and it has everything — Entertainment, history, a little bit of science, legend... It has a kind of primeval innocence about it,” he says.
Though born in Guyana, Duncan grew up in England where he is credited with the revival of storytelling in Britain. His stories are the perfect mix of the modern and the traditional — with liberal doses of mimicry and a lot of inspiration. “I find my stories everywhere — in libraries, while speaking to elders, in books,” he says. His stories are the ones that are not usually told — they are not the ones in the popular circle. “I like to find stories like that and retell them,” he says and adds, “But wherever I go for stories, I have found stories that speak to me.”
Duncan has also had encounters with Indian stories. In the late 80s, he formed a storytelling company with Indian Odissi dancer Flora Devi called Tellers of time. “She tells Indian stories and motifs and I would bring in the African side of things,” he says.
For several years, Duncan has also been a part of a dance-music collective titled Transglobal Underground — where he functions as a lyricist, poet, percussionist and vocalist, aside from telling stories. “At the end of the day, we just like to tell stories. They break cultural barriers and you get the pleasure of learning something about someone else’s world,” he says.
After Chennai, Duncan is also scheduled to conduct session in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. Ask him what he has learned from all these years of workshops and storytelling, pat comes the reply — patience.
“The stories, they teach you a lot of things. They remind us that he world isn’t a given and that it can change drastically. And if I didn’t embrace the lessons of the stories I’m telling, then I shouldn’t be telling stories,” he says candidly.