This study argues that material compensation and caste status are essential to the signifying practice of Malian jeliw ("griots") and its continuing relevance. As Mande society's hereditary "masters of the word", jeliw entrance their listeners with accounts of ancestors' heroic deeds, sometimes in the context of epic recitations and sometimes in popular song. These genealogical narratives function as praise in a society that understands descent as an essential constituent of personality. Indexing an imperial social order with inherited bonds of obligation between patron and client, this praise reproduces the status of the jeliw. Gifts of cash and goods to the jeliw on the occasions of these performances concretize the traditional obligations of nobles and, thus, realize the nobility of the givers. Material compensation makes jeli flattery true in ways it would not otherwise be. These gifts defy both the Maussian discussion of gifting and the Marxian analysis of commodity exchange. The jeliw's semiosis is performative in the sense that they help to create the historical imaginary to which their utterances refer. Thus, performances of jeli praise may help Malians to negotiate the marginalizing effects of globalization.