The music of the kora, a 21-string bridge harp made from half of a large calabash covered by a cow skin for resonance and then strung on a long neck, is one of the most beautiful in the world. Emanating from the jali or griots, that is, master musicians, from west Africa, the music of the kora is immediately identifiable by anyone who knows the western harp.
One of the better-known griots to worldwide audiences is Foday Musa Suso from Gambia, who is also an oral historian, singer, and composer, heralded for his maintenance of Mandingo traditions, while also incorporating western influences that complement the traditional instruments he plays. It is said that his direct ancestor Madi Wlen Suso invented the kora over 400 years ago.
Although Suso's father was also a master kora player, it is not traditional for fathers to instruct their sons, so Suso was sent to another teacher and remained in study until he was 18. For three years, he taught kora performance at a university in neighboring Ghana. In 1977, he became the first jali to migrate to the United States, settling in Chicago, which happens to be the home of Flying Fish Records. He formed the Mandingo Griot Society as part of his efforts to fuse west African and western music and also became an associate of the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, already featured in many posts of this blog. Through Laswell, Suso recorded with Herbie Hancock, Ginger Baker and Pharoah Sanders and he also has worked with Paul Simon, the Kronos Quartet and many others. His compositions were performed at the Olympic Summer Games in 1984 at Los Angeles and in Athens in 2004.
On 1984's Hand Power, Suso's fourth album and released in the U.S. on Flying Fish Records, the kora master plays a dozen instruments with overdubbing of from three to six of them on any one track. In addition to the kora, Suso handles various percussion instruments and the western instruments of electric guitar and harmonica. The six pieces are very close in length to one another, ranging generally around seven minutes and featuring Suso's lead vocals with support on two tracks from a backing vocalist.
Part of the griot tradition is what is called "praise singing" and all the tracks fall under this category, with the first giving credit to the founding president of independent Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara. The second "Tesito" invokes the title word as a call to his fellow Gambians to "redouble effort" in building up their country. "Fatoto Camara Kunda" is about the family named Fataoto Camara. "Julla Fasso" is a praise song for Suso's home village in Foday Kunda, Wali district. The track "Tramakang" reaches back into ancient history to sing the praises of a great warrior from the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Finally, "Ye Goni" refers to the music of dousongoni, as played in the village of Bambugu.
Traditional instruments do form the core of the album, with the electric guitar only used on "Tesito" and the harmonica on "Ye Goni." They blend in perfectly with the native instrumentation and provide a support and complementarity that provide the best in what fusion can be. Indeed, his many collaborations with western musicians demonstrate this. Now based in Seattle, Suso continues to actively promote his unique fusion of music and Hand Power is a great way to get introduced to this fantastic artist, who will be profiled here again in conjunction with other projects with Laswell.
Foday Musa Suso: Hand Power (Flying Fish Records, 1984)
1. Sir Dawda Jawara 6:39
2. Tesito 6:53
3. Fatoto Camara Kunda 7:06
4. Julla Fasso 6:59
5. Tramakang 6:54
6. Ye Goni 7:07