Tribute to a Living Legend - Foday Musa Suso

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | comments

One of Gambia's most famous exports is the internationally acclaimed musician, Foday Musa Suso. In 1977 he moved to Chicago to spread his love of kora music to the United States, forming the Mindingo Grigot Society, which had three other members. Together they fused traditional and jazz sounds to develop a new sound -  known now as 'World Music'.

The Oral Music Tradition

Foday Musa Suso is a Mandingo griot from Gambia. Griots are the traditional keepers of the nation's oral history, wisdom and also their music. Because the music is not written down there are very few scores available to teach others, and the music must be passed from generation to generation of griots. Their music tells stories of ancient battles, tribal conflicts and of empires past. Cultural heroes feature, and stories of family lineages. Every civilisation has its oral conservators, but none quite so developed and complex as that of the West African griots. It is a unique and very special tradition.

Early Life

Foday is the direct descendent of a line of griots who go back centuries, to Jali Madi Wlen Suso, who invented the kora over four centuries ago. The kora is a fascinating instrument, which defies classification. It is neither guitar, lute, nor harp, but somewhere in between the three. Foday was born in Sarre Hamadi Village, Gambia. As a baby, he learned to make sounds on a kora before he was even big enough to hold one. Growing up in a traditional Gambian village in the griot family, he was surrounded by kora music day and night. It is not the custom for the child to be taught the kora by his own father, even one who is a kora master.  Foday learnt under the master kora player Sekou Suso, who lived in the Pasamasi village of the Wuli District. He was taught history and music extremely well, worked and was a very fine scholar.

Moving On

Foday learned his craft so well that he moved on to teach the kora himself, in Ghana, at the Institute of African Studies in the University of Legon. But still with itchy feet and a deep love of the musical tradition he had inherited he took a trip to Chicago in 1977, to try and bring the kora to a wider audience. It must have been a shock to move to a hectic city full of CityLink delivery vans and hamburger joints, but Foday immediately set to work in this bustling creative space, to make a name for himself. He formed the famous Mindigo Griot Society, a band which included Adam Rudolph featured jazz trumpeter Don Cherry as a guest. Pushing the boundaries of the traditional kora sound, these musicians anticipated world-music fusion many years before the rest of the world caught on. Over the years he has performed both as a soloist and with other distinguished musicians throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America.


As one might expect, Foday's primary musical expertise is in playing the Kora, a 21 string musical instrument, with a large calabash - or bottle gourd - forming the resonator. This is hollowed out and a cow skin is then stretched over it, and a long hardwood neck added. The skin is supported by two handles that run under it which support a notched double free-standing bridge. It is a highly complex instrument, with five different tuning methods (Tomraba, Tomaramesengo, Silaba, Haridino and Sautha) which must all be learned before one can be called a Master player. Foday is a skilled player of many other instruments, including the Belengo,  Kalimba, Kutiro, Junkuran, Shekere, Electric Guitar, Harmonica, Balafon, Dundungo, Tamo and Dousongoni. He is particularly admired for his expertise on the West African drums.

Herbie Hancock & Other Friends

Perhaps because of this extraordinary range, Foday came to the attention of bassist, producer and record-label owner Bill Laswell, who introduced him to Herbie Hancock in 1984. Together they worked on a song for the Los Angeles Olympics, 'Junku' ('Let's Do It'), which made the official Olympics album, and Herbie Hancock's 'Sound System' album. Foday then joined  Hancock for a tour of the US and Japan. Their working relationship went from strength to strength. Foday also worked with Bill Laswell and recorded numerous tracks and live performances. 1985 saw him collaborate with the renowned composer Philip Glass on a number of singles, for films and plays, and again for an Olympic themed event – 'Orion', a piece commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad which preceded the Athens Olympic Games. In 1997, Foday and Bill Laswell traveled to Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea Bissau to record 'Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa & Beyond'.


There are few musical accolades for this mild-mannered and gentlemanly Gambian to acquire. He's played in the Lincoln Center in New York, Staatsoper Opera House in Vienna, and the Royal Festival Hall in London. In 2008 he was asked by Paul Simon to perform with him in 'American Songs', which was a weeklong musical retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He has never strayed far from his African roots, despite now living permanently in the US. He often visits African countries to perform. A true present day legend, the Mandingo griots will surely sing of his achievements for many years to come.

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