ALHAJI PAPA SUSSO Gambia, 1947
ALHAJI PAPA SUSSO
HOW KORA WAS BORN
- as sung by Papa Susso to Bob Holman
This story begins long long long long ago
So long ago that it was a place not a time
There was a man
He was so alone
The only person he could talk to was Africa
Luckily there was a tree nearby
Even more luckily behind that tree
Thats where his partner was hiding
All the sun and all the water were condensed
Into a single tiny block
Which the man planted in the sandy soil
He blew and he blew on that spot
Each time he blew he thought he heard something
What he was hearing was of course his partner singing
The man didnt even know what singing was
Because he could only talk
He couldnt sing yet
So he blew and he listened, blew listened blew listened
And the plant pushed out dark green
And began to twist and grow
A vine reaching for the breath
And stretching towards the song
(Because it was made from sun and rain, remember?)
So at the end of the vine that was the calabash
And the tree it was not a tree anymore
It was the neck and handles
That was when the mans partner Saba Kidane
Came out into the open (but thats another story)
And the breath and the singing and the vine?
Well, there are 21 strings, what do you think?
And now you say what about the bridge and the cowhide
And the rings that tie the strings to the neck
So you can tune the kora
Hey, what about the thumbtacks that hold
The cowhide taut over the calabash
And the resonator hole
Well you go right on talking about all that
Im playing kora now
Next time Ill tell you about the cow
Alhaji Papa Susso (Suntu), master kora player, traditional musician, oral historian, virtuoso and director of the Koriya Musa Center for Research in Oral Tradition, was born on the 29th of September, 1947, in the village of Sotuma Sere in the Upper River Division of The Republic of Gambia, West Africa.
Papa Susso hails from a long line of Griots (traditional oral historians). His father taught him to play the kora when he was five years old.
The kora was invented by the "Susso" family of the Mandinka tribe of the great Manding Empire. It is a 21-stringed harp-lute unique to the western- most part of Africa and is meant to be played only by the Jali (professional musicians, praise singers and oral historians), who were traditionally attached to the royal courts. Their duties included recounting tribal history and genealogy, composing commemorative songs and performing at important tribal events.
Papa, as he is commonly known, attended Bakadaji Primary School from 1963-1960. He passed the common entrance high school examination, which allowed him to enroll as a student at the Armitage High School, Georgetown, The Gambia, from 1960-1965, where he graduated with honours.
Upon finishing high school, Papa Susso was appointed Agricultural Assistant in the Ministry of Agricultural and Natural Resources. He held that position until he received a scholarship to attend Outington University in Suakoko, Liberia, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in business administration in 1969.
On his return to The Gambia, Papa Susso joined the civil service of The Gambia government as a Senior Accountant in the Ministry of Work and Communications. Papa has also served as Financial Attaché and Liaison Officer for The Gambia Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, with concurrent accreditation to the Republic of Liberia, Guinea and The Ivory Coast. Papa Susso later resigned to go back to his traditional role as a kora player so that he could keep his African culture alive. He became the chief kora player of The Gambia National Cultural Troupe under the Ministry of Education and Culture.
In 1974, he resigned and formed his own cultural organization: The Manding Music and Dance Limited. The objectives of this organization include: a) conducting research and carrying out studies into the history, traditions and ethnomusicology of Manding; b) carrying on the business and assisting the performing artists in the presentation of music and folklore of Manding; and, c) reviving, exposing and promoting a better understanding and appreciation of the music culture of the Manding.
Papa Susso is a Muslim by religion. He has traveled quite extensively to East, West and Central Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Canada and the United States of America, spreading his special message of peace and love.
He has performed for several heads of state and government and the United Nations Organization. Papa Susso has also performed with several symphony orchestras. He is a premier performer in the "American Classic African Portraits" by Hannibal Peterson. He performed at New York City's Carnegie Hall twice, for the Baltimore, Detroit, Kalamazoo, San Antonio, St. Louis and Chicago Symphonies, the Louisiana Philharmonic of New Orleans, and Kazumi Watanabe Opera, Tokyo, Japan.