I got interested in Africa over a decade ago because I was interested in African music. I was lucky enough to attend a college that had a remarkable African dance program, led by Sandra Burton, a veteran of Chuck Davis’s African American Dance Ensemble. Sandra brought musicians like Obo Addy to our studio in rural Massachusetts, and I got the chance to work with amazing teachers, despite being miles from what anyone would reasonably call a center of Africa culture.
As I started listening to recordings from the continent, what turned me on was not the traditional and neo-traditional music we were playing in the dance studio – it was the places where Africa and the rest of the world collided, sonically. Shina Peters and “Afro juju”, where traditional meoldies played on crappy electric keyboards thundered over traditional drums. The endless jams of Fela Kuti, with horn sections that sounded like Lagos traffic. But my favorite was Mandingo, Foday Musa Suso’s project to bring Gambian griot music into the 21st century.
Foday Musa Suso, in his late 80s electro phase
Suso, a master kora player from The Gambia, came to the United States in the late 1970s and found himself playing with modern jazz greats Don Cherry and Herbie Hancock. His collaborations with Hancock were especially fruitful, resulting in “Junku”, a composition for the 1984 Olympic Games, and two legendary albums together: Village Life and Jazz Africa.
Village Life is a set of live studio recordings in Tokyo (August 7-9, 1984, album released 1985), with Suso on kora and talking drum, and Hancock on Yamaha DX-1 and drum machine. Hancock says, in the liner notes, that he’d planned on playing piano to accompany Suso on traditional griot pieces, but saw the DX-1 on a Yamaha factory tour and fell in love. Because the DX-1 was tuneable in microintervals, Hancock was able to make his instrument closer in tune to the kora. The two are still strikingly different instruments, of course, and the meeting of the two is farther afield than other North/South encounter records, like Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré’s remarkable Talking Timbuktu.
(I’ve just digitized Village Life and posted two tracks – Moon/Light (first track, side one), and Kanatente (the second side of the album). The LP I’m working from is not perfect – and it took me a good three months of online searching and bidding to get the copy I have. You’ll hear a lot of noise on the first minute of Kanatente – my apologies.)
Suso and Hancock produced another album together, which was also released as a concert film: Jazz Africa. I’m willing to pay far too much money for this on LP, but have yet to find a copy of it – a live album, it features the two, plus Santana’s percussionist, Armando Peraza, and is supposed to be blazingly hot.
Hancock moved on from his electro and African fascination to experiment with jazz/hiphop crossovers, with mixed success. But the collaboration had a deep impact on Suso, who released two Afro-Electro albums, produced by Bill Laswell, who had produced the Village Life sessions. Hancock played on the first – Watto Sitta – though not the second – New World Power – which moved into darker, harder, dancier territory. Not only are they some of Suso’s best albums, I’d put them right at the center of Laswell’s best world music collaborations.
Suso’s Mandingo albums are difficult, though not impossible, to find. The Hancock collaborations are much rarer. Neither sold well – record stores didn’t know where to shelve the recordings, never mind how to recommend them. Jazz purists had already given up on Hancock years ago as he got more fascinated with electronic sounds, turntables and the raw ingredients of 1980s hiphop. And world music purists had a hard time with the electric edge of the sound, especially as Mandingo’s later recordings made the kora just another ingredient in an electric stew.
But these collisions between the modern and the traditional are what Africa sounds like. Demanding that Suso play the kora the way his forefathers did, and not the way Herbie Hancock would, is like demanding Africans stay in those picturesque, malarial villages and not move to cities. Suso’s music – like Peters’s or Fela’s – broke stereotypes and complicated people’s views of what African music sounded like. It’s hardly a surprise no one bought them – complicated views of Africa are hard to sell in the US.
Tracks, downloadable in mp3
“Junku” – from Herbie Hancock “Sound-System”, 1984
“Moon/Light” – from Foday Musa Suso and Herbie Hancock “Village Life”, 1985
“Kanatente” – from Foday Musa Suso and Herbie Hancock “Village Life”, 1985
“Harima” – from Mandigo “Watto Sitta”, 1985
“Tell Me One More Time” – from Mandigo “New World Power”, 1990