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African Legends

Foday Musa Suso

By Tom Orr
Published November 14, 2006

The 21-string harp known as the kora has become a familiar sight and sound to African music lovers worldwide, thanks in no small measure to Foday Musa Suso.

Born into a family of griots (hereditary musical storytellers and historians), he began to master the celestial tones of the instrument as a young boy in his native Gambia, spending his early adulthood playing throughout Europe before returning to Africa in the mid-’70s to teach at the university of Ghana.

But the academic life was not to be Suso’s calling. By 1977 he was residing in Chicago, where he formed the fusion ensemble Mandingo Griot Society with percussionist Adam Rudolph. That band blazed trails in what we now call world music, collaborating with notables like trumpeter Don Cherry and putting Suso’s deft but delicate kora in the first of many contexts that would make it very much an instrument of the past, present and future.

After the breakup of Mandingo Griot Society he recorded and toured with Herbie Hancock for a time, bringing an electrifying aura of African roots to Hancock’s cutting-edge leanings. 1984 saw Suso reunited with Mandingo Griot Society members Rudolph and Hamid Drake for the album Watto Sitta under the name Mandingo. Produced by Bill Laswell (who’d had a hand in Suso’s work with Hancock), Watto Sitta was a landmark of modern African music, deftly and seamlessly blending Suso's razor-sharp kora with an easy balance of organic and synthesized sounds.

Suso’s work in the years since has included projects with Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet and Pharoah Sanders, and though other masters of the kora (Toumani Diabate, Mory Kante, Kaouding Sissoko, etc.) have rightly brought acclaim to the instrument and their skills on it, Suso remains arguably the premier innovator of the lot. In traditional, contemporary, minimalist, classical and avant-garde settings he’s cast the kora in both lead and supporting roles where its emotive, shimmering sound finds ever new levels of beauty and boldness.

Recommended Recordings

Mighty Rhythm (Flying Fish) (w/Mandingo Griot Society)
Hand Power (Flying Fish)
Watto Sitta (Celluloid)