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LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL : The Storyteller's Song : Gambia native Foday Musa Suso, trained as a village oral historian and adept on a variety of stringed instruments, embodies the cultural focus of the L.A. Festival's wide-ranging world music concert series

August 15, 1993|DON SNOWDEN | Don Snowden is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Don't bet on finding an artist in the Los Angeles Festival with deeper roots than Foday Musa Suso.

True, the Gambia native has lived in Chicago since 1977 and brought the sound of the traditional kora into pop/dance music. But Suso is not only a bona fide griot (oral historian) and a member of one of four kora -playing families in Gambia, but his lineage stretches back to Jalimadi Wlen Suso, the man who invented the 21-string instrument several centuries ago.

"What I play today comes from my village griot background," said Suso, who performs Sept. 10 as part of the festival's Getty Museum Concerts Series. "That tradition or history which I know about the Mandingo people in Africa, I have that with me.

"No matter how long I stay here, that will not change unless some more things are added to it. I can sit in Gambia right now in a village, hold the kora , and play in the middle of the crowd exactly like I never even left."

That living heritage makes Suso a perfect fit for the festival's overall theme of "Home, Place & Memory." And his role as a griot transplanted from his native land became a model for selecting the world-class musicians from Los Angeles and elsewhere who will perform during the festival.

"On a musical basis, it seemed interesting to look at those styles of music that continue to tell stories that were used to transmit legends and history," explained Bob Wisdom, a festival curator who conceived the Getty Series, which reflects the festival's focus on African, African-American and Middle Eastern cultures.

"Aside from the voice, that led us inevitably to stringed instruments because embedded in Persian music and West African music, particularly, are playing styles that in and of themselves tell stories from parts of their history."

Wisdom is a veteran music curator who has worked at the Kitchen in New York City, New Music America and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. But the L.A. Festival's strong Middle Eastern component opened up a new musical world for him and many of the scheduled events point directly to cross-cultural similarities. (He also helped organize the festival's Sacred Landmarks series, which brings a wide range of music to various places of worship.)

While the lineup leans heavily to artists working in more classical or traditional styles, there are some pop connections. Ali Farka Toure, the Malian singer-guitarist who can be a musical dead ringer for bluesman John Lee Hooker, appears Sept. 9 on a Greek Theatre bill headlined by B.B. King and Buddy Guy. (Toure also performs the following night at McCabe's in Santa Monica.)

Hassan Hakmoun will show two sides of Moroccan gnawa music. On Sept. 10, his electric trio Zahar will rock Jewel's Catch One. The following night, Hakmoun will perform an acoustic solo concert at the Getty. The paucity of pop-oriented performers was partly caused by budget constraints, but was also partly by design.

"All the great pop bands have come through California," Wisdom said. "The next layer we want to try and build is an appreciation for this other level of music that I don't want to call traditional, but isn't really flat-out dance music."

Foday Musa Suso's music could fit in all three camps. In addition to the kora (which resembles the cascading waterfall sound of the European harp), Suso plans to play the dusongoni (a six-string, lower-pitched guitar) and the nyanyery (a one-stringed violin) at the Getty. His repertoire includes more than 100 traditional songs and nearly 50 of his own compositions.

"The traditional way of playing the kora , and the new songs I do, are completely different," explained Suso during a phone interview from his Chicago home. "When I tune the kora to play a non-traditional piece, an average kora player might think it's out-of-tune because he isn't used to hearing the kora in that way. It's something I have come up with."

Suso said the kora's 21 strings allow him to perform structured pieces that take advantage of the instrument's flexibility. "You can be playing the rhythm and at the same time, on top of the rhythm, you're doing improvisation," he said.

Born in 1950, Suso began the intensive studies preparing him for his role as a griot when he was 11 and became a full-fledged griot , or jali , at 18. He taught kora at the University of Ghana in Legon but Suso already was looking to bring his music to a wider audience.

"Back home in Gambia, I used to hear Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Howlin' Wolf on the radio and (other) African music there," Suso recalled. "I would say, 'Well, these people are not Gambians and I'm hearing their music,' so I think if I do the same thing they do, the whole world will hear my music."

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