Foday Musa Suso
Preview of performance with Philip Glass, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Independent
By Dru

Foday Musa Suso is a traditional performer known as a "griot" (say GREE-o) in his native Gambia and neighboring Senegal. Griots are a caste of professional musicians/storytellers/oral historians that have served as the culture bearers of West Africa for some 1500 years at least. Suso traces his own distinguished family's line back almost a thousand.

The griot's education and training is oral and requires a lengthy apprenticeship from childhood under the direction of a teacher, often the father or an uncle. Study lasts several years in order to master the instruments and learn hundreds of songs. (A single song can last 10 hours.) Their participation is vital to any celebration or ritual.

Scholars agree that griot music figures prominently in the genealogy of early American blues music, having originated in regions of northwest Africa from where many people were taken as slaves hundreds of years ago. While the music of the griots can sound ancient and otherworldly to the western ear, there is a striking resemblance to the blues in how melody, scale and flattened pitch (so called "blue" notes) are used in both singing and playing.

Suso had already mastered his tradition's songs and stories by the time he settled in America in the late '70s. In 1977 he co-founded Mandingo Griot Society, an ensemble that put griot music in the context of a modern band and thus become a pioneer in early world-fusion. Suso also has experimented with funk, jazz and dub in his works with Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell's group Material. Perhaps his most ambition effort is the CD compilation Jali Kunda (1996 Ellipsis Arts) which features a dozen traditional tracks hand-selected and arranged by Suso, many of which are played by his relatives in Gambia. It also showcases three modern compositions: one written with Laswell, one with avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Saunders and finally a standout track "Spring Waterfall" with minimalist Philip Glass.

Suso first collaborated with Glass on the soundtrack to the film Powaqqatsi (1988), on which he played kora—a 21-string instrument akin to something between a harp and lute—and balafon, a 21-key xylophone. In addition to other instruments mastered by the griot, Suso also played the part of musical tour guide and mentor to Glass who wished to further explore his interest in African music, and the two became immediate friends.

The next collaboration between the two was also a soundtrack, this time to a play: a Joanne Akalaitis production of Jean Genet's The Screens. The play is set in the former French colony of Algeria during the French-Algerian war and therefore ideal for an Afro-European musical treatment. The composers co-wrote this work in a "back & forth style" while reading through the script with the director, with the result that there are pieces each composer became primarily responsible for: Glass representing Western European imperialism, and Suso the colonized point of view.

For those who are unable to witness live the haunting juxtaposition of the tunings of the African instruments with their western counterparts used in The Screens, the soundtrack is available from Point Music (1993). But seeing this collaboration is a unique opportunity whose kind won't come again to Santa Barbara anytime soon.

There will be a free Meet-the-Artist discussion w/ Foday Musa Suso on Tuesday, May 1 at 2pm in the Multicultural Center Theater at UCSB.

Selected Discography:

  • Various Artists: Jali Kunda
  • Foday Musa Suso: The DreamTime
  • Foday Musa Suso: Handplay
  • Mandingo Griot Society: Self-titled
  • Mandingo (feat. Foday Musa Suso and Bill Laswell): New World Power
  • Foday Musa Suso & Philip Glass: Music from The Screens

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