Foday Musa Suso
Foday Musa Suso is an internationally recognized musician and a Mandingo griot from the West African nation of Gambia. Griots are the oral historians and musicians of the Mandingo people, who live in several West African nations. Griots are a living library for the community, providing history, entertainment, and wisdom while playing and singing their songs. The history of empires and kingdoms, tribal conflicts, cultural heroes, and family lineage are all part of a griot’s traditional repertoire. It is an extensive verbal and musical heritage that can only be passed down within a griot family.
Foday is a direct descendent of Jali Madi Wlen Suso, the griot who invented the kora over four centuries ago. Foday spent his childhood in a traditional Gambian village, in a household filled with kora music. He began to play his father’s kora even before he could hold the instrument on his own. Though his father was a master kora player, in griot tradition a father does not teach his own children the instrument. So from age 9-18, Foday studied music and history under master kora player Sekou Suso in the village of Pasamasi, Wuli District.
After many years of rigorous study, in 1974 Foday spent 3 years teaching the kora at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Legon, Ghana. In 1977, he moved to Chicago and became the first kora player to establish himself in the United States. He formed The Mandingo Griot Society with 3 American musicians, playing a fusion of traditional and jazz that is now known as “world music”. Since 1977, he has performed as a soloist and with other musicians throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. Interested in both traditional and cutting-edge music, he has also written many original compositions, toured and recorded with many prominent musicians. In addition to his virtuosic kora playing and singing, Foday Musa Suso is very skilled in playing traditional West African drums, as well as many other instruments.
Foday Musa Suso’s collaboration with Herbie Hancock began in 1984, when Bill Laswell introduced them and they co-wrote a composition for the Los Angeles Olympics entitled ‘Junku’ (‘Let’s Do It’). This song was included on the official Olympic album and on Herbie’s ‘Sound System’ album. Herbie then invited Foday to join his band for a tour of the U.S. and Japan, where they co-wrote and recorded a duet album entitled ‘Village Life’. Afterwards, Foday invited Herbie to play with his band Mandingo on the ‘Watto Sitta’ album. In 1987, both Herbie’s and Foday’s bands joined forces to record ‘Jazz Africa’, a live concert which was released as a CD and video.
Between 1987 and 1997, the musical collaboration between Foday and Bill Laswell resulted in a myriad of recordings and live performances. They co-produced 2 of Foday’s solo CDs, 2 Mandingo Griot Society CDs, and a compilation entitled ‘Ancient Heart: Mandinka and Fulani Music of The Gambia’. In 1991 and 1993, Foday joined Bill and Ginger Baker to tour Europe and Japan, which resulted in the release of 2 live CDs, ‘Imabari Meeting’ and ‘Material: Live in Japan’. Bill also introduced Foday to Pharoah Sanders and produced the 1996 ‘Message From Home’ CD that featured a collaboration between Foday and Pharoah. In 1997, Foday and Bill traveled to Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea Bissau to record ‘Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa & Beyond’. Foday performed on and co-produced this CD, which was accompanied by a 96-page full-color book of photos and interviews from Foday, his family, and the other griots involved.
Foday also has a long history of collaboration and performance with renowned composer Philip Glass. In 1985 they co-wrote the soundtrack for the movie ‘Powaqqatsi’, and in 1990 co-wrote the music for a revival of the Jean Genet play ‘The Screens’. In 2004 they collaborated on the music for ‘Orion’, a concert work commissioned by the Cultural Oympiad which premiered in Athens Greece preceding the Olympic Games. Since the early 1990’s, Foday and Philip have performed in concerts together at venues all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Barbican Center in London, and the Melbourne Arts Centre.
In addition, Foday has worked closely with the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble who commissioned him to compose five works. ‘Tillyboyo’ (Sunset) was released on their 1992 CD ‘Pieces of Africa’. Foday and Kronos have performed together at venues such as Lincoln Center in New York, Staatsoper Opera House in Vienna, and the Royal Festival Hall in London.
From 2003-2005, Foday and Jack De Johnette toured extensively together and recorded 2 CDs, ‘Music from the Heart of the Masters’ and ‘Ripple Effect’.
In 2008, Paul Simon invited Foday to perform with him in ‘American Songs’, a weeklong musical retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Also in 2008, Foday composed music for the acclaimed Susan Cohn Rockefeller documentary about Dr. Rick Hodes work in Ethiopia, entitled ‘Making the Crooked Straight’, due to be released on HBO in 2010. After 32 years in Chicago, Foday Musa Suso now makes his U.S. home in Seattle, Washington.
Follow Foday Musa Suso: