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Our Least Known Local Treasure

Foday Musa Suso's played all over the world, but he mostly just sleeps here.

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In 1983, armed with a demo tape and Bill Laswell's phone number, Foday Musa Suso set out to get himself a record contract. He'd seen the video for Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," from a record Laswell produced, and was impressed with the sound and the dancing white gloves. "I thought, I'm going to call this tubab"--a Mande term for white person--"but then I thought, No, he's a typical tubab, he won't know anything about African music," says Suso. "But I was wrong. Bill is one of those people who listen to all kinds of music."

In fact, Laswell was familiar with Suso and owned the first album by Suso's band the Mandingo Griot Society, which he'd formed upon moving to Chicago in the 70s. "He said, 'Are you the one who played the dousongoni?' which is kind of an African bass," Suso says. He and Laswell made plans to meet in New York, where the producer asked Suso if he was interested in working with other musicians. He was.

After Suso returned to Chicago, Laswell called and asked if he wanted to play kora, the 21-string harp that dominates traditional West African music, on a new Hancock record he was producing. Suso hadn't heard anything by Hancock besides "Rockit," but he said yes.

He returned to New York, where Laswell played him a work in progress from Hancock's 1984 album Sound-System. Hancock's parts hadn't been recorded yet--it was just the rhythm tracks. Suso improvised a kora part on the spot, nailing it in one take.

That take changed Suso's career forever. Doors opened for him to work with the likes of Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet, and most recently the great jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette. He's become a bona fide international ambassador for African music; in June he performed "Orion," a piece commissioned by the 2004 Athens Cultural Olympiad, with Glass in Athens. "That was good," says Suso. "We played two nights and both nights sold out." According to Glass, they're in talks with Ravinia to bring the piece to Chicago sometime next year.

But Suso's gain over the past two decades has been Chicago's loss. He's performing here twice during this week's World Music Festival (see pullout guide in Section Three), but he might as well live in Africa for how rare those shows will be. The Mandingo Griot Society was a Chicago fixture in the late 70s and early 80s, but aside from reconvening the group for a gig at the African Festival of the Arts in 1995 and accompanying saxophonist Pharoah Sanders at last year's AFA Suso can't remember the last time he played here. "I don't know anyone in the music field here anymore, and they probably don't know me either," he says. "I look at Chicago as my hometown--my bedroom. The plane is like my office. I can't remember the last time I picked up the phone to call someone to say I want to play. Nobody calls and I don't call anybody either."

Suso has lived in the same one-bedroom apartment in Hyde Park for 27 years. His living room is filled with the tools of his trade--several koras, including an insectlike electric kora he bought in the mid-80s in New York, and various other African stringed and percussion instruments. One wall is occupied by a huge rack filled with about 1,000 cassettes of his own performances, and its top serves as a mantel for a display of CDs he's played on over the past three decades. The other three walls are decorated with posters announcing gigs all over the world. Beneath a set of windows is the PC that he records his compositions on.

Suso doesn't do much at home besides sleep and work. He spends part of each winter in his native Gambia, where he has a wife and four kids. He calls them regularly on the phone, but he's never thought about bringing them to Chicago. "It's important for them to be there, because with all of my traveling they would have to be alone all of the time," he says. In Gambia members of an extended family typically all live in the same town, so his wife and children have strong connections there. Suso says he would have stayed too, if not for one reason: "Since I was young I had been thinking how I could play my music for the whole world to hear."

Suso was born in 1950 into a griot family--a family of musicians, historians, and storytellers. His father, Saikou Suso, was a great kora player, and when Foday turned seven it was time for him to learn the instrument. At ten he went to study with an uncle in a different village, living with his family for seven years until he had command of the instrument.

He had the urge to travel from a young age. "Whenever I saw a plane flying overhead there was something about it," he says. "I would tell my mother, 'When I grow up this will be my transportation.' My mother would say, 'You must be crazy. We don't know anything about this flying boat. Stop dreaming.'"

He got his first chance to fly when a group of Scandinavian tourists came calling. Some of them owned bars and restaurants in Scandinavia, and they wanted to bring home a kora player to entertain their customers. Although they hadn't heard Suso play, an interpreter led them to his parents' home. "They talked to people and people tell them that, oh, we have a young boy here, he can play this instrument very well," Suso says. "So they came to our house. I wasn't there. They talked to my father to see if they can take me to Scandinavia. He said no. When I came home my mother told me, 'Some tubabs came here; they want to take you to their country. Your father said no.' I went to him and said, 'I want to go and play!' My father had no idea where their place is."

After they'd returned home the tourists sent Suso's family a letter and a plane ticket, and his father relented. At the age of 18 Suso spent six months playing solo in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland--six weeks in each country, six nights a week. "I went there in winter," he says. "Landing in the Stockholm airport there was snow everywhere, and I thought to myself, Oh, maybe the land of the white people is also white. When the Swedish people saw me they laughed, because I was only wearing a dashiki." His hosts quickly outfitted him with a winter wardrobe. "It was the first time I had ever seen gloves," he says.

In a Stockholm bar he befriended an accordionist from Bordeaux, who invited him to play in France. He gigged regularly in Europe until 1974, when he took a job teaching kora at the University of Ghana. Toward the end of his three and a half years there Suso met Chicago percussionist Adam Rudolph, who'd come to Africa to study drumming. As musicians do when they become friends, they decided to start their own band--a kora band in Chicago. "Alex Haley's book Roots had just come out, and I kept hearing about griot, griot, griot, so I thought the U.S. might be a good place to go," says Suso. He was also well aware of America's position at the center of the recording industry.

He came to Chicago on September 8, 1977. He spent eight months living with Rudolph, his parents, and his younger brother in Hyde Park. "He was part of the family," says Rudolph. "I have pictures of him at Christmas opening presents. We got him a coat and snow boots--it was a rough winter." They immediately started putting together the band. Rudolph had written to Hamid Drake from Africa--they'd been regular collaborators in Chicago--and Drake was on board from the start, but it took a few months to find bassist Joe Thomas. "We went through four or five bass players," says Suso. "They all come and try the music and they say, 'Oh, this music is very sweet, but it is very strange.' But Joe Thomas said, 'I will like to try something different.' I said, 'You got it,' you know? This music is very very different."

The Mandingo Griot Society got off to a quick start, playing a lunchtime gig at Daley Center that generated a news story on WTTW and landed Suso a full-time job through the Illinois Arts Council. He taught classes on African culture in grade schools and junior highs in Evanston, Chicago, Springfield, and Champaign-Urbana. "There's a million world-music fusion groups nowadays," says Rudolph, "but at that time there wasn't even a category in the record stores called world music. There wasn't a band that I knew of that was really based upon traditional African folkloric music."

The band's next gig was at the Birdhouse--the old north-side club run by jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson--and it was there that Bruce Kaplan, former owner of Flying Fish Records, first heard them. At least that's how Rudolph remembers it. "That's what my friend Adam says! But I think it was at Wise Fools," says Suso. "Birdhouse we only played at two times."

Wherever it was, Kaplan immediately offered them a deal. In the summer of 1978 they made their first record, which featured Don Cherry on trumpet. By the early 80s they'd played several times across the country and in Europe, but they also played a lot locally, most often at Wise Fools Pub. Suso even got an opportunity to bring some cultural authenticity to the Roots franchise, providing music for a scene in 1979's Roots: The Next Generations.

The Mandingo Griot Society released a second album in 1981, but by then Rudolph had moved to Los Angeles and Drake was increasingly busy playing with Fred Anderson. So Suso started to think about going solo.

By the time he hooked up with Laswell, Suso had begun to broaden his approach to the kora and to write original music. While he prides himself on his fluency in the different styles of West African kora music, which use four distinct tuning systems, and his ability to play the vast repertoire of traditional songs from five different nations, he felt he needed to alter his playing to mesh better with western styles. "Here music is all about counting, counting bars," he explains. "In Africa there's nothing to count. The music keeps repeating over and over. You can play one song for 20 or 30 minutes, as long as people keep dancing. I cannot listen to that kind of music anymore. I like colors and changes to come all of the time in my music."

He adjusted the instrument's tuning to fit in with the traditional western scale and immersed himself in the structures of the west, mixing them with the sweetly fragile melodies, downward-spiraling phrases, and deep, resonant tone indigenous to African kora music.

Herbie Hancock was so pleased with Suso's contributions to Sound-System that he asked him to join his band for a tour of Japan, and when it ended they cut an album called Village Life in Tokyo. The following year an acquaintance of Philip Glass who worked at Celluloid Records, the label that handled most of Laswell's recordings and released the third Mandingo Griot Society album in 1984, told Suso that Glass was interested in visiting West Africa to take in the music. Would Suso like to serve as his guide?

They met in New York and a monthlong trip was arranged for Glass, his son Zack, and Glass's entourage for December 1986. Suso wasn't familiar with Glass's work, but he knew he could do a good job showing him around. "I knew when there would be a ceremony in a particular village," says Suso. "During the daytime we would drive to a ceremony in a village and in the evening we would come back to the hotel. But some villages were too far away, so the hotel would be very basic. We called one hotel a 'bucket hotel,' because we had to fetch our water in a bucket." Suso showed me video footage he shot that Christmas of the New Yorkers dancing joyously, if a bit clumsily, in a circle of smiling Gambians.

"We became very good friends," says Suso of Glass. "When we got back he said, 'Suso, you are my friend. Here is the key to my house--you will never stay in a hotel in New York again.'" Zack Glass has returned to visit Suso's family in Gambia three times, and Philip Glass has worked with Suso several times since.

"At that point Foday had been living in America for about nine years," says Glass, "and he had done a very unusual thing that I've only come across one other time in my career with people trained in a nonwestern tradition: he came and learned how to play music with people playing in a western tradition. These are people who came from a very different background than he did. In order to play with them he had to adapt what he knew and invent a common ground for them to work with. Ravi Shankar did this years and years ago when he came to live in the west in the 60s. They both came out of a traditional music from their own cultures and without any training learned to collaborate and sometimes to merge quite effectively with the music they found here in America."

Over the years Laswell had suggested that Suso collaborate with the Kronos Quartet. "I would just say OK, but I didn't know anything about them," Suso says. "I didn't know and I didn't try to find out." But they knew about him. After an early-90s performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Glass went backstage and spoke with David Harrington, a violinist with the group, who told Glass about a CD of kora music he'd purchased in Japan. He asked Glass if he knew the musician. Glass laughed and said, "He's at my house right now."

Glass hooked Harrington and Suso up. "I just thought it was gonna work," says Glass. "The Kronos Quartet is always on the lookout for unusual composers to work with." The quartet commissioned a few pieces from Suso, one of which, "Tillibyo," ended up on their 1992 album Pieces of Africa. Suso played kora. He hasn't done much recording since then, but he's played out steadily with all of his collaborators. He started recording a CD with DeJohnette last year, and next month he'll tour Brazil with the drummer.

During the festival Suso will give a solo performance and play with the local ensemble Fulcrum Point New Music Project. He admits that until they contacted him he didn't know who they were either. "When I'm home I'm either sleeping or writing music with my kora," he says. Over the years his colleagues have tried to get him to move to New York or LA. "But I live in Chicago," he says. "New York is too crowded. And in LA everywhere you go you have to be driving for a long long time. Chicago is not crowded like New York, and it's not like places are a far distance from each other like LA." But he doesn't have any plans to perform here more frequently in the future. "As long as I'm working somewhere," he says, "I'm happy."

Foday Musa Suso

When: Wednesday, 9/22, 11 AM

Where: Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

Price: Free

Foday Musa Suso with Fulcrum Point New Music Project

When: Wednesday, 9/22, 7:30 PM

Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport

Price: $15

For more See the World Music Festival pullout guide in Section Three.

Info: 312-742-1938

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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