Foday Musa Suso - Biography
By Nick Castro
When most world music appreciators think of Foday Musa Suso they think of two things: traditional Mandingo griot singing and world fusion with his gravikord. It is rare for a musician to conjure such contrasting comparisons as these, but it is exactly what Suso has done. He has not only co-created the Mandingo Griot Society in the United States, he has racked up an impressive list of collaborators, which include artists such as Philip Glass, Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock, Kronos Quartet and Jack DeJohnette. Suso's music has spanned the genres of griot, funk, jazz, avant classical and new age. Although he may attract some unwanted criticism from world music purists, Suso may have done more to propagate the culture of Mandingos in the United States and around the world, more than anyone else in modern history.
Suso's story began in his native Gambia, where at an early age, Suso was indoctrinated into the ways of the Mandinka griot. Griots served as not only storytellers, but as keepers of an oral tradition which spans back 7 hundred years. A griot, or Jeli, as they are also called, would accompany a warrior king in his travels, and not only be the holder of his stories and traditions, but would also serve as a sort of advisor to the king. Suso began his studies in the griot tradition before he was even a teenager, and by his late teens, was already widely considered a master in Mali and Ghana. by the mid 70's, Suso was teaching Kora to students at the University of Ghana, in the Institute of African Studies. He began to perform concerts around Europe as well, at that time still focusing on the traditional griot sounds he was so well versed in. His popularity in Europe quickly grew and soon he was graduating from playing clubs to playing theaters as well as getting regular spots on national radio and television in countries like France and Germany.
By 1977, Suso began to feel that he was outgrowing Africa and Europe, and he set his sights on The United States. He met, now legendary, world music and jazz percussionist, Adam Rudolph , and he soon moved his operation to Chicago, and quickly began to hob nob with many of the jazz world's luminary figures. Suso, always intent on maintaining the Mandingo traditions, quickly formed the group, Mandingo Griot Society, with Rudolph, as well as Hamid Drake on percussion and Joe Thomas on bass. Their sound combined elements of jazz with a strong foundation of griot music underneath it all. Their two albums, Mandigo Griot Society (1978 - Flying Fish) and Mighty Rhythm (1982 - Flying Fish) predicted the big worldbeat or world fusion sense that was about to explode throughout the 80's. The former album even featured famed jazz trumpeter, Don Cherry, already known for his excursions into multi cultural sounds.
by 1983, Mandingo Griot Society has disbanded as its various members began to pursue other projects. Suso, still energized from his new American musical adventures, got in touch with producer and bassist, Bill Laswell, whose work he had come into contact with through the Herbie Hancock album that Laswell had produced. Laswell was open to the idea of a collaboration with Susp and soon Suso was in the studio, playing on the new Hancock record that Laswell was producing. Hancock fell in love with the sounds of the Kora and invited Suso come to Japan to perform with the band. This would lead to a successful partnership with Hancock. A&R people from the Celluloid label heard Suso through his collaboration with Hancock, and they offered him a contract to record an album of solo works. This would mark the beginning of a domino effect that would catapult Suso to success over the course of the next few years.
Suso's first solo album, Watto Sitta (1984 - Celluloid). By the time of this release, Suso was already far beyond traditional griot music, and instead was performing his own brand of afro pop. He is joined by Hancock on keyboards, as well as Laswell on production. Suso is also joined by Rudolph, Drake and Thomas, formerly of the Mandingo Griot Society. Suso can be heard in him virtuosic splendor on songs like nearly chaotic, yet catchy, "Natural Dancer", whose rhythms are so complex, it is a wonder that it is still classifiable as pop, yet it is. The success of this album led to a collaborative live record with Hancock, called Jazz Africa (1987 - Polygram), recorded at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. This album shows Suso stretching out, as he performs much of the concert with his unique style of violin playing, especially on the album's standout track, "Debo", which features some infectiously funky rhythms by the band.
In the late 80's, Suso met composer Philip Glass, and the two collaborated on the soundtrack for the film Powaqqatsi, as well as on a score for a play by Jean Genet, called The Screens. Through Glass, Suso met musicians from the Kronos Quartet, and like most musicians who came into contact with Suso, they fell in love with his sounds. Soon the group recorded the album Pieces of Africa (1992 - Nonesuch), with Suso on Kora. It was also around this time that Suso began to utilize the gravikord, an ultra modern electric adaptation of the traditional 21 stringed kora.
In 1990, Suso released his most famous solo album, under the name Mandingo, called New World Power (1990 - Axiom), for Bill Laswell's label. Laswell also produced the effort, which featured him on bass, as well as an assortment of synthesizers and keyboards. The album features Suso on the cover, posed with his new gravikord, the instrument he is now most synonymous for playing.
In recent years, Suso has reunited with Glass for a series of live concert dates. He has also performed with a reunited version of the Mandingo Griot Society. He has also recorded and performed with many of jazz's heavy hitters, such as Jack DeJohnette and Pharoah Sanders.